BALTIMORE (AP) — The University of Maryland, University College, is the first U.S. school to offer face-to-face classes during the war in Iraq. But far more meaningful than a few college credits is the sense of normalcy the classes offer.
Staff Sgt. Bryan Julian of Indianapolis never attended college until he served in Iraq. A few months ago, he started classes, taking on textbooks and homework besides the rifles and chaos of war.
"It's actually quite nice," said Julian, 34. "I'm in the National Guard, I'm a police officer back home, so my definition of normal is probably different from someone else's."
Julian has served as a medic in Iraq for five months. He has seven months remaining on his tour, and decided to use his spare time taking sociology and criminal justice classes. He hopes the classes will help him become a detective.
"I try to stay busy over here," he said in a recent telephone interview. "The busier you stay, the faster time goes by."
But getting — and providing — an education in a war zone is not easy. Students come to class not just with books and pencils, but guns. They do homework in between military assignments. Classes at Joint Base Balad, about 40 miles north of Baghdad, are conducted in a building that formerly housed Saddam Hussein's air force academy.
Six UMUC professors teach in Iraq. Mark Fisch, who teaches sociology, criminal justice and other courses, recalled teaching a class as mortars and rockets exploded outside.
"Obviously, you have to stop lecturing and deal with that," said Fisch, 58, who spent much of his career at small liberal arts colleges in the United States. "There are incoming mortars, but it's rare."
Before professors go to Iraq, they receive military training, learning about the Iraqi culture, safety protocols and anti-terrorism. The professors are assigned bulletproof helmets and vests.
The attendance policy grants leeway to students who miss class because of a mission.
UMUC has offered courses on military bases during wartime for about 60 years, and has not had any faculty fatalities.
About 300 military personnel, most of them younger than 30, take 18 undergraduate courses, which usually run four to six weeks. The military covers the cost of everything except textbooks, which come from Germany and are rented to students for about $20.
The courses offer a morale boost, and they can also help improve soldiers' military work. One captain plans to require the 20 soldiers under his command to take an introductory writing class so they can compose better military memos, according to Daniel Powers, a UMUC representative who oversees the classes at Joint Base Balad.
Fisch said that teaching soldiers in Iraq has been perhaps the most fulfilling experience of his career. He intends to continue teaching there for another six months before taking a break and returning stateside.
He said, "We are educators, we are entertainers, and we are a few hours when they don't have to be on missions. We are a few hours when they can actually be normal college students."
On the Net:
University of Maryland, University College: http://www.umuc.edu
Information from: The Baltimore Examiner, http://www.baltimoreexaminer.com/
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.