SOU program for soldiers on combat duty

Southern Oregon University is reaching out beyond the classroom to educate men and women serving on the front lines.

Starting this fall, soldiers will be able to take up to 16 credits at SOU while deployed overseas. The courses are self-paced, Internet-free and won't cost the soldiers a cent.

"We thought it would be a good way to develop a correspondence-style program that could serve Oregon's soldiers while they're gone," said Lt. Col. Keith Ensley of the Oregon National Guard.

The object of these classes is to provide soldiers a knowledge base without using the Internet. Ensley, having recently returned from Afghanistan, said the men and women go without Internet access for weeks at a time, making online courses offered by most schools useless.

SOU's distance education program is unique: four classes, with curriculums based on hand-written assignments, textbook readings and CD-ROM presentations. The soldiers will complete their assignments by hand, and mail them back to Oregon.

SOU Admissions Director Mark Bottorff said the economy is driving more young people in to the military, and that schools have a responsibility to help them prepare for the future when their tour is through.

"We went back to what we used to do years ago," Bottorff said.

Correspondence courses similar to SOU's program have long been offered. But the Internet pushed them entirely online, out of reach to those on the frontline.

"We went back to regular coursework, paper and pencils," Bottorff said.

Instituting the program took work on the part of SOU administrators. They had to ensure the credits would transfer back — not only to their school, but to the six other Oregon University System-accredited schools.

"We realized a large number of Oregon National Guardsmen would be deploying (in the summer)," Bottorff said, "and we began to build a formal program." He anticipates 30 Oregon Guardsmen will be enrolled this fall. He and Ensley are confident the program will grow from there.

Ensley knows the importance of giving soldiers a feeling of having something to look forward to when they go home. Soldiers without a plan for readjusting to society are more likely to exhibit signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he said.

"It gives you a sense of hope when you return, versus a 'What am I going to do?' feeling," Ensley said.

The program is designed to be accessible by anyone who wishes to use it, and Ensley said those who take advantage of it could have many college entrance requirements — including SAT scores — waived.

"It's designed to entice them to go to school when they get back, and to use their time wisely when they are there," he said.

SOU is the first Oregon school to offer such a program. Bottorff said it aligns with the school's mission to offer a brighter future for all students, particularly those who answer the call to serve their country.

"We want to be here to accommodate those soldiers post-deployment, help them get started in a college education they wouldn't have typically gotten straight out of high school," he said.

If successful, the program could soon double in size, to eight courses, worth a total of 32 credits. That would amount to nearly a year's worth of college for free — incentive enough for any soldier. Ensley is thankful to the SOU administrators who so eagerly signed on to the project. He said it would not have been possible without their support.

"They didn't have to do this," Ensley said. "I think the university sees what an opportunity this is to serve, and also to provide outreach in helping a young soldier bridge the gap and return to college."

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