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Jonathan Gourley, a Marine Corps Reserve sergeant, graduated from MSU Denver in December 2017 while actively deployed to the Corps

Operation Study Abroad

Active duty and academics coexist for MSU Denver students who deploy across the globe.

March 5, 2018

By Matt Watson

Deployed and degree-seeking

Jonathan Gourley’s name wasn’t called at MSU Denver’s fall 2017 commencement ceremony, but the physics major’s name was in the program, and he certainly earned his degree. He just missed the ceremony because he had to work. His work is important.

Gourley is a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve. He was called to active duty in the Corps’ Northern Command in October, two months before he was due to graduate from college. Thanks to open conversation with his unit commanders and faculty members, Gourley made all the necessary arrangements to finish his coursework while deployed and graduate as planned.

“The faculty in the Physics Department and the rest of the University were outstanding to work with during my time at MSU Denver. Balancing life, coursework and the Marine Corps was challenging to say the least, but with the flexibility and help of my fellow classmates and professors I was able to navigate through it,” Gourley said.

He plans to enter the field of advanced research and development after his deployment ends in late 2018.

Sheila Loftin is a staff sergeant in the Colorado Air National GuardSheila Loftin is a staff sergeant in the Colorado Air National Guard. She spent the entire fall 2017 semester in the Middle East, but like Gourley, Loftin took her studies with her. She completed two summer classes while going through pre-deployment training and took several classes while deployed overseas. Not only has her service not detracted from her education, it’s actually shaping her academic and professional future.

Loftin is studying human development with a human services minor. While she originally planned to pursue a master’s degree in public health and work in an administrative setting in a hospital, she now wants to do more hands-on health care.

“I decided after going through a combat life-savers course through my military training that I am a lot more interested in going to nursing school and working in a hospital in that regard,” Loftin said. “I think my human development degree will help me as well though throughout my future nursing career.”

Aaron Rognstad won’t be able to continue his coursework when he deploys in May. The Army Reserve staff sergeant is pursuing his teaching certificate and hopes to complete a 120-day deployment to Asia this summer in time to student teach in the fall.

Rognstad has been in the military for 17 years, with tours in Iraq, South Korea and Latin America, but he decided to restart his education at MSU Denver after seven years away from school.

His academic path has directly affected his military service – he has a journalism degree from Colorado State University, which led him to public affairs work for the Army – and now his upcoming deployment could provide quite the influence on his education and future career. He’s serving in a military history unit, documenting what other Army units are doing, while he pursues a teaching certificate so he can teach high school social studies.

“I had always wanted to teach, but I got side tracked doing other things. About two years back, I was working a dead-end job in sales and decided I was going to go for it. I quit and enrolled at MSU,” he said. “I’ve had to do military trips here and there with the Reserves, and they’ve allowed me to miss certain classes for a week here or two weeks there.”

Aaron Rognstad, an Army Reserve staff sergeant deploying to Asia in May, is pursuing a teaching certificate in high school social studies at MSU Denver. Photo by Mark Stahl

Serving those who serve

MSU Denver’s policy on military leave for students dictates that members of the State or National Guard, Reserve or active United States Military called to active or inactive duty will not be academically penalized for their service.

Students are required to present proof of training schedule, official orders or a letter from their unit to Veteran and Military Student Services. Prior to January 2018, students had to visit Veterans Education Benefits within the Office of the Registrar, but the University streamlined the process to make Veteran and Military Student Services a one-stop shop.

Lauren Sullivan, director of Veteran and Military Student Services, helps advise military students and their professors on the appropriate options when a student is called to serve.

“Depending on where they are in the semester and what’s happening, we can act as a go-between with faculty to make sure students feels like faculty are being receptive and understanding,” Sullivan said.

There are five academic options depending on the timing and duration of a student’s deployment – dropping classes; withdrawing from classes; receiving an administrative withdrawal; taking an incomplete (completing work upon return from leave); or completing missed work without penalty if academic progress is being made while on leave, which is largely dependent on the student’s deployment environment.

“We’re getting more online options all the time, which is good so that some students can keep taking classes overseas,” Sullivan said. “It depends on their job, what their tempo is and what kind of internet access they have.”

Support for deploying students doesn’t end with academic consultation. Last semester, Sullivan coordinated the compilation of care packages from the MSU Denver softball team, and when Gourley graduated in December, Sullivan made sure a commencement program and medallion made it to his family.

No matter how far a Roadrunner’s road takes a student, Veteran and Military Student Services is there to make sure the more than 1,000 veteran or military students at MSU Denver – including the handful that actively deploy – have someone to run alongside them.