In 1949, UMGC sent faculty overseas to teach U.S. troops stationed in postwar Europe. Today, that tradition continues, and the university’s global footprint positions it to transform lives—and the world at large—in new and sometimes surprising ways
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appears in the 2022 issue of Achiever Magazine
By Mary Dempsey
What began as a relatively straightforward mission to offer college-level instruction to military personnel deployed overseas has increased in complexity and scope in the intervening decades. Today, more than half of UMGC’s students are affiliated with the military in some way—and the university is preparing them as global citizens while also leveraging its global footprint to further expand its impact.
Later this year, the university will roll out a refreshed version of its Green Zone program, an online training module designed to help staff understand the distinctive culture that shapes military-affiliated students. It represents another resource—along with current academic programs, co-curricular activities, and portfolio of services—that positions the university to meet the ambitions of adult students around the world.
“UMGC now has more than 180 sites around the globe, and we put faculty and staff on the ground to allow servicemen and women to continue on their educational journey, including in conflict zones like Vietnam and Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Lloyd “Milo” Miles, UMGC’s senior vice president of Global Military Operations. “Most universities wouldn’t do what we do. The cost would be tremendous, the infrastructure would be tremendous, the challenges would be tremendous. But UMGC has been willing to do it since the beginning.”
In military-speak, UMGC puts its boots on the ground, and its impact is felt far beyond the classroom.
In alignment with its promise to “meet students where they are,” the university continues to expand its physical footprint, both overseas and stateside. It has followed servicemembers to their assignments around the globe, in peace and in war, most recently adding a location at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, stateside, UMGC is driving an ambitious expansion that now includes Education Centers in 11 states and the District of Columbia.
This global footprint only underscores the fact that education can no longer be presented as “one size fits all,” and university stakeholders have embraced this reality.
UMGC staff who teach in far-flung regions have volunteered to help at pivotal geopolitical moments, offering support, for example—as have servicemember students—during U.S. military and civilian evacuation efforts in Afghanistan in 2021.
In fact, UMGC staff and military students were among the first to assist in the evacuation, working in Kabul or from support stations in Qatar.
In response to a call for assistance from the Air Force, UMGC staff at Ramstein Air Base in Germany set up cots and helped prepare for incoming flights of evacuees. The only civilians working alongside the military, they also coordinated closely with the USO to greet arriving evacuees, distribute food and water, and support UMGC students in social work classes who were helping with children and Red Cross placements.
Other UMGC servicemember-students also played key roles.
“When Operation Allied Refugee first kicked off last year, I assisted by setting up cots and chairs, handing out food, and directing people,” said student Devon Bechtel. Later, her company took charge of one of the living quarters for evacuees, setting up beds and directing evacuees to showers and bathrooms, distributing supplies from the Red Cross, and ensuring that refugees were fed.
Bechtel noted that, at the same time, there were concerns about the spread of COVID-19, because many of the evacuees had not been vaccinated. Nonetheless, she said, interacting with the refugees “was the best thing I did.”
Involvement like this is possible because UMGC leverages technology to transcend geopolitical borders and brick-and-mortar classrooms. It had developed a virtual learning infrastructure long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced other universities online, and now—as it works to refine that infrastructure—it is poised to lead in a re-envisioned higher education landscape.
In Asia, that technology, and the agile operation it supports, recently allowed the university to expand its language offerings. Korean language courses, previously offered only onsite in South Korea, are now routinely available on the Asia-Wide Virtual schedule, along with livestreamed and virtual Japanese-language courses. And UMGC Asia also offers its Bridge Program, which allows Japanese nationals to study English in order to prepare them for college-level courses.
Supplementing the language instruction, UMGC Asia also offers students overseas the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the countries and cultures where they are stationed. One field study program, for instance, focuses on the history of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, tracing Okinawa’s evolution from the 17th century to the present.
In addition to for-credit courses, UMGC faculty members teach “UMGC Presents” classes—low and no-cost community services courses that also help deepen cultural understanding and engagement. In September 2022, for example, Professor Frank Concilus marked the Chuseok holiday, sometimes referred to as Korean Thanksgiving, with a UMGC Presents lecture.
Central to all UMGC instruction is an unwavering focus on student success, and Green Zone training helps illustrate the multifaceted way that plays out.
“The Green Zone training raises awareness of the uniqueness of the military-affiliated students, the challenges they face, the really great things they bring into the classroom,” said Kelly Wilmeth, vice president for Stateside Military Operations. “The objective is to educate staff and faculty on the uniqueness of military students as they try to achieve their educational goals and career aspirations while moving all over the world.”
She added that the training helps spotlight the complexities of adult learners in the military, including their diversity, and offers an overview of the military, UMGC’s history of providing college-level instruction to personnel deployed overseas, and an in-depth look at the unusual personal and professional challenges that military-affiliated students may face.
“If a student e-mails their instructor to say they are being mobilized, receives permanent change-of-station orders, or is deployed overseas on short notice, that is different from the experience of other adult learners,” said Nicole DeRamus, UMGC assistant vice president of Veterans Programs. “We believe Green Zone training closes a gap in knowledge for those who may not have served in the military or who may not have a family member who served.
“We think this training helps others better understand those students, while also creating an environment where military-connected students have a sense of belonging,” she added.
Through Green Zone training and other initiatives, UMGC is also raising awareness of the diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) and accessibility issues that are part of the university’s DNA.
“It is important for UMGC to provide a global leadership voice, particularly in the areas of DEI and accessibility, given our years of experience successfully operating in a global environment and serving diverse students,” said Patricia Jameson, acting associate vice president and deputy director for UMGC Europe. “It is our social responsibility to share our expertise and knowledge to help educate our communities.”
Jameson directs UMGC’s overseas diversity and equity programs in Europe and Asia, and explained how, in the past year, UMGC has entrenched DEI learning through conferences, webinars, discussions, and activities.
In June, the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Conference: Cultivating Inclusive Competence” offered members of the UMGC Europe community the opportunity to present research linked to their undergraduate or graduate studies. The conference was held in Germany, at the Sembach Education Center, and broadcast live via Zoom.
A few months earlier, UMGC supported a Diversity Day at Ramstein Air Base and partnered with the military garrison in Stuttgart to host a webinar—also broadcast live on Zoom—on gender equality. Similar events were presented in partnership with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council and Gender Equality Committee of the U.S. European Command and U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden.
In October, a faculty event on diversity was broadcast live to American Forces Network (AFN) leadership teams at 14 satellite sites throughout Europe, helping foster a deeper understanding of how diversity and inclusion matter in the workplace. And to mark the new Juneteenth holiday in the United States, Jessica Stock—a professor of English literature and member of the university’s Diversity Council—selected Ralph Ellison’s book Juneteenth for the UMGC Europe Book Club she facilitates.
UMGC students in Europe have also taken up the torch. MBA students in the Leading in the Multicultural Global Environment course spearheaded a diversity and inclusion discussion in December focused on “Cultural Intelligence in Business Leadership.”
James Cronin, vice president and director of UMGC Asia, points out how these efforts are both necessary and a natural fit for UMGC.
“When I joined the U.S. military at 21, for the first time I worked and lived side-by-side with people from all races and backgrounds, and it really opened my eyes to what we should be,” Cronin said. “The military has always had a diverse workforce, and inclusion was a necessity—and we see that in the demographics of our student body. As diversity, equity, and inclusion is necessary for the military, it must also be for UMGC.
“Our students must be able to use our academic programs to help them succeed in this global world and diverse workforce,” he added. “It is vital that UMGC helps to deliver a positive message of inclusion from the perspective that it is essential and not optional.”