They were three active-duty servicemembers from three different countries pursuing expertise in three different fields. Yet the men had something special in common. They fast-tracked their academic careers at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC)—completing their degrees in roughly half the time it usually takes—through the use of ACE credits.
The credits, established through guidelines from the American Council on Education (ACE) with servicemembers in mind, acknowledge past academic studies and military technical training. They dovetail with transfer credits, prior learning credits, industry certifications and other avenues through which UMGC students can reduce the number of courses they need for a degree.
Samuel Omojola earned his Bachelor of Science in Psychology in just more than two years thanks to the kick-start he received with ACE credits. Stationed with the Army in Germany, he was one of the graduates celebrating at UMGC’s spring 2023 commencement in Europe.
“I came to the states from Nigeria with my family in 2019. We were in North Carolina for only eight months when I joined the military,” said Omojola. “My uncle had just retired after working as a military cook for 24 years and he told me to join the Army.”
Omojola’s uncle even accompanied him to the recruiter’s office, providing his nephew with two additional pieces of advice along the way: make school a priority and save money. Omojola took the guidance to heart, particularly the part about pursuing an education. He had already enrolled at UMGC by the time he reported to his first duty station in Kaiserslautern, Germany, during the global COVID-19 lockdown.
“I was really self-motivated,” he said.
On the same plane carrying Omojola to Germany was another Army recruit, Ali Camara, who was born in Atlanta but spent his childhood in Guinea in West Africa. The men later discovered that they had enlisted in the military in the same month and they had similar Army work assignments in medical supply logistics. Omojola also learned that Camara was pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at UMGC. Although they lived on different bases, they were only 10 minutes apart. It wasn’t long before they became close friends.
“I remember Ali had similar goals of finishing his education, and we used to motivate each other,” Omojola said. “Every time I signed up for new classes, I asked Camara what he was doing now. We raced each other to finish our degrees—in a healthy competition.”
Christian Awuku, living one floor above Omojola at the base, was also on an accelerated UMGC degree path thanks to ACE credits, including for technical training programs he had completed through the military.
“These servicemembers exemplify how UMGC works to connect adult students to resources that can streamline their education,” said UMGC President Gregory Fowler. “There is no reason for our students to invest their time and money in learning what they already know. ACE credits recognize the knowledge and skills they have already acquired.”
Emil Moumani, associate director for academic operations and student services for UMGC in Europe, said incoming students may qualify for academic credit for knowledge gained both inside and outside academic institutions, such as classes taken via the sophia.org online learning platform.
“UMGC is very receptive to prior learning credit,” Moumani explained. For a bachelor’s degree, which typically requires 120 credit hours to complete, UMGC accepts up to 90 ACE and transfer credits.
UMGC sits at the forefront of higher education in accepting transfer credits from other academic institutions. U.S News & World Report has ranked it as the No. 1 transfer-friendly university in the United States.
Jan Keller, UMGC assistant vice president for academic operations and student services in Europe, noted that credit for prior experience, such as professional experience or internships, can also expedite the time students need to complete degrees.
“If you have worked as a leader in an organization, for example, and feel your management experience should qualify for credit, you can document that and provide us with a portfolio of what you’ve done,” said Keller. “You can also take challenge exams to demonstrate your knowledge and receive credit.”
Challenge exams gauge understanding in specific subject areas.
In addition to ACE credits for military technical training, Camara took challenge exams and received transfer credits for college classes he took before enlisting in the Army. He raced through the BBA program—even taking two or three courses a semester during deployments—so he could graduate in 2021. He then immediately enrolled in the MBA program, which he is on track to complete in December.
Camara began his studies at UMGC a few months ahead of Omojola and Awuku, and whenever he reached a new milestone, he told his friends. “It inspired them to keep on,” he said.
Camara said the coursework filled essential gaps in his knowledge. “I’m a sergeant and a lot is expected of me, but before enrolling at UMGC, for example, I never knew how to use a spreadsheet. I have gained so many skills because of UMGC,” he explained.
Omojola’s goal was to complete his bachelor’s degree before he left Germany. With ACE credits, his four-year program would be shortened to three years. He outpaced that by taking extra classes some terms.
“It was a lot of work but it paid off,” said Omojola, who is commissioning to the Army Social Work Program. “I’m going to get my master’s in social work then work for the Army awhile longer. When I’m done, I hope to get a PhD.
“I like UMGC. I liked the experience and I liked the flexibility,” he added. “If by the time I’m ready for the PhD, it offers the program I need, that’s where I’ll go.”
Academic studies weren’t the only additional responsibilities Omojola carried. A passion for music prompted him to audition for the Amy band.
“I’ve been singing since I was a child, first in the choir and then as a major soloist at my church,” he explained. “For me, music is like therapy. When I’m feeling bad, I connect to music and it makes me feel safe.”
His first audition took him to a final cut. “I got all the way to the end but I didn’t make it,” he said. “But I didn’t let that get to me. I just thought, ‘I want this, so I’m going to try again.’ I invested in my music, trying to make myself sound better.”
He eventually got a green light and has been performing with the Army band—he is a tenor—since May 2022. As much as he loves music, he sees as it as a passion, not a professional pursuit.
For Awuku, UMGC offered an opportunity to start over. He and his wife met in college in Ghana—she was studying accounting and he was pursuing a degree in accounting and business finance. It wasn’t until after emigrating that he learned his degree was not recognized in the United States. Awuku’s wife, who had enrolled in UMGC’s cybersecurity program, insisted that he go to the university’s education office on the Army base and talk to somebody about his options.
“Christian was in an internal fight with himself. He had a degree from Africa that was not accepted in the U.S. He had to decide if he wanted to do it all over again,” said Moumani, who provided academic counseling to all three graduates. “I knew that his military schooling and his industry-level certifications would count for credit.
“He enrolled and he was done with his degree in under two years,” he added.
Awuku received a Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity and Computer Networking. While in the program, he switched off all his social media accounts and buckled down to his studies, reading coursework during his lunch breaks and working on assignments every evening.
“I have people from my home country and friends who have not spoken to me in a long time—they complain about it—but I had to stay focused,” he said.
Awuku graduated in April 2023 and immediately enrolled in UMGC’s Master of Science in Cybersecurity Technology Program. In August, he was scheduled to return to civilian life. He joins his wife, 11-year-old son, and 8-year-old daughter in Maryland and hopes to build a career in information security.
UMGC Europe Associate Vice President and Associate Dean Andrew Boone noted that ACE credits may not be the right fit for everyone. The credits are good news for students in a hurry to earn a degree and advance their employment opportunities. But students who want to dive deeper into a discipline or later pursue additional degrees, may find it to their advantage not to bypass UMGC courses.
“If you do History 156 for credit [outside UMGC], the amount of learning that takes place may not be as in-depth as spending time in a university class,” he explained.
UMGC guidance counselors work with students to determine which pathway best matches the students’ aspirations.
For people like Camara, fast-tracking a degree program made sense. He plans to complete 20 years in the military career before he returns to Guinea to open a business “and give back what I’ve learned.” He said he encourages other servicemembers to sign up for UMGC classes.
“Education in the Army is free. If you aren’t ready for a degree program, you can take just two or three classes to expand your knowledge,” he said. “You may not know what you want to do right now, but you’ll figure it out.”