USS KEARSARGE, At Sea -- With Harriers and helicopters to fly, missions to organize, physical training to conduct, and numerous daily tasks aboard a Naval ship, it might seem impossible to pursue personal education in the little free time available. However, Marines and Sailors with 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit are making the time to achieve their educational goals in the classroom.
The program, offered through Park University, offers a way in which commissioned officers instruct classes to personnel aboard ship. Upon approval of the university, selected officers develop syllabi, lesson plans, assignments, and evaluations within the university's guidelines and standards.
Classes range from mathematics and world religion to military history and nutrition. The classes operate just like they would on land with textbooks, homework, quizzes, tests, and grades, except there are some distinct differences to accommodate Marines and sailors deployed aboard ship.
"It's more challenging," said Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Powell, Chaplain for 26th MEU and World Religion instructor aboard USS Kearsarge. "Each one of the students has a job that they have to perform and they're having to do this after hours. Three of them are sharing a computer. They don't have the resources such as a library that a community college or a university would have."
Limited space is also a consideration aboard ship. Every space and compartment has a specific use, and with one designated classroom aboard USS Kearsarge, instructors are hard-pressed to find a place to conduct classes. Instructors said coordination, cooperation and a spirit of teamwork are keys to conducting nearly all training and operations aboard ship, and education is no exception.
"Lesson plans and assignments are tedious work but not terribly difficult," said Lt. j.g. Jeffery Cummings, naval gunfire liaison officer for Battalion Landing Team 3/8 and instructor for Introduction to College Math. "Trying to get a space that is legitimately and appropriately scheduled without conflicting against other organizations has been far and away the largest source of difficulty."
Groups of students can often be found in the chapel, in the hangar bay among aircraft maintenance and other activity, or wherever there is a spot available to sit. Silence is a rarity as every few minutes the sound of aircraft taking off or landing on the flight deck reverberates throughout the ship.
Spread across the three ships of Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, the Marines and sailors continue their education through correspondence with their instructors. With many Marines supporting flood reliefs in Pakistan and in Djibouti to conduct mission-essential training, it is necessary for instructors to collaborate with students in order to teach the material, grade assignments, and administer tests while still being fair to other students who are able to attend class.
"I'm handling these students on a case by case basis to ensure that I meet the requirements of Park University while still getting them the understanding this course is supposed to provide and the college credits associated with it." Cummings said.
"Flexibility is paramount," Powell said. "We may have a clear week ahead of us but next week (the MEU) might be doing something completely different."
Even with limited time and resources, students say they are determined to complete their work. Staff Sgt. April Ceballos, an aircraft maintenance administration specialist for Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 266 (Reinforced) (VMM-266), attended college before deployment and was happy upon hearing the news that she would be able to take classes aboard ship.
"I'm working on getting my degree," she said, "figured on the boat was just as good a place as any, fights the boredom, and I get to interact with different people. I plan on getting my bachelor's in Aviation Management. I haven't had to do this kind of math since high school, so trying to get back into it and remembering the applications has been a challenge."
Lance Cpl. Carl Rowan, a dynamic component mechanic for VMM-266, is also taking classes to improve his career. "It gives us points towards our cutting score," he said, referring to the Marine Corps promotion system. "It can look better on your proficiency and conduct marks. I will be getting a degree eventually. It'll be in mechanics, but that's in the future."
When asked how he manages both his work and instructor life, Cummings said, "Sleep is for the weak! Honestly though, it's just a matter of focusing on priorities and working efficiently."
Between work and school, Marines and sailors are learning to not only manage their time, but are also gaining a valuable education. While an average day on ship consists of many tasks, these Marines and sailors with 26th MEU are finding time to not only accomplish their daily mission, but improve their knowledge and future as well.