MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. — Now a Ph.D., Chief Master Sergeant Jackie-Lynn Brown recalls her mother pecking away, key by key, on an old, manual typewriter at the dinner table. She remembers her saying, “We can be 10 years older and have our degree or we can be 10 years older and not have it.”
It was her mother’s words of wisdom many years ago and the opportunities afforded by military service that propelled Brown to earn a master’s degree and then her doctorate of Philosophy in Organization and Management.
“For many semesters, on school nights I would leave work in time to grab something quick from the vending machines and make it to class by 5:15 p.m.,sometimes staying until 9:30 p.m.,” said the Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education, Chief Master Sergeant Academy’s, Director of Education.
“Taking classes like this made for long nights, but it was well worth it.”
As an Airman, Brown first decided to use her off-duty time and enroll in college classes offered through the base education office. Over the years, Brown used that motivation to pursue a master’s degree in Global Management before moving on to her doctorate.
While it’s a bit unusual to earn a Ph.D. in the enlisted ranks, Brown is far from alone when it comes to pursuing degrees while juggling the demands of enlisted life. Anyone who has carried a full-time schedule of college credits understands what is required to pursue education. It may sound taxing, but each year the Community College of the Air Force awards more than 22,000 associate in applied science degrees to Airmen. Many enlisted members may be interested in obtaining their technical degrees for promotion to the senior non-commissioned officer ranks, but what drives the more than 30,000 enlisted who have obtained bachelor’s, master’s and even doctorate degrees?
Late nights studying
Airmen like Master Sgt. Alicia Barley, CCAF regional manager, pursued an advanced degree to show the importance of education to her children.
When Barley earned her CCAF associate degree, she joined a group of more than 456,000 other Airmen who have received the degree since 1972. She also joined a smaller pool of enlisted Airmen who obtained an advanced degree.
“There were many nights I spent time doing homework while my children were doing theirs,” explained the CCAF regional manager. “Those days were rough and long, but I can say I did it and did not give up even though I had days I wanted to say forget it.”
Although the continual pursuit of off-duty education is outlined in Air Force Instruction 36-2618, The Enlisted Force Structure, obtaining an advanced degree is not required for most enlisted jobs, so why do enlisted Airmen do it?
Chief Master Sgt. Andrew Hollis, CCAF vice commandant, admits that without his master’s degree, being seriously considered for his current position would have been difficult. However, he wasn’t going after a position when he started attending classes.
“Each academic advance made me feel like I was changing lanes in downtown Atlanta,” said Hollis. “I started in the slow lane and kept progressing into faster and faster lanes as my knowledge and confidence advanced.”
Hollis said that earning the CCAF associate degree and getting an undergraduate or graduate degree can be life-changing for Airmen and their families. For many, the CCAF associate degree is a stepping stone on their educational journey. A recent CCAF graduating class survey revealed that 29 percent of students stated that with their associate degree, they became the first person in their families’ history to graduate.
For Airmen like Master Sgt. Anthokira Dobbs, the educational services flight chief at CCAF, who grew up in a difficult environment, pursuing an advanced education was a means of providing a better way of life for her and her family.
“I was determined to not stay there,” said Dobbs, who completed her master’s by the time she was a technical sergeant. “My parents taught me growing up that having a solid education was the foundation to success, and I continued to use those values to motivate me.”
Although there are different reasons enlisted Airmen pursue advanced degrees, there are common themes, from wanting to escape a rough childhood to setting a positive example for their children and families, like Master Sgt. Kimberly Woods, a CCAF flight chief.
“I personally put myself through the rigors of balancing work and family to show my son that hard work, determination and some sacrifice is a way of life. Nothing in life is free and these are some of the things I have to do to make sure I am able to provide for him,” Woods said. “Also, I am trying to lead by example not only at work but at home as well. Education is an important accomplishment that will help to sustain our way of life after I am no longer wearing the uniform.”
Woods recalls her mother working several jobs to provide for her and her brother. She said she saw the fatigue and sometimes sadness in her mother’s eyes, but she was determined.
“I never saw her give up and for that, I am thankful because that molded me into the woman I am today,” said Woods. “My family looks up to me and is very proud, and I want to make sure my son will look at me just as proudly as the rest of my family.”
A sense of responsibility to family serves as a motivator for many, but others believe the pursuit of higher education comes from a commitment to service before self and excellence.
“For most of us, the time we serve in the Air Force is during our peak productive years. We are trained to prioritize and to engage multiple tasks,” said Tech. Sgt. Jody Bowles, CCAF educational services technician. “I also believe that people will make time for what they want to make time for. If education is a priority for them, they will find a way to make it happen.”
Does the Air Force benefit?
The Barnes Center, CCAF’s parent organization, has worked to make bachelor’s degrees more accessible to Airmen.
Today, programs like the Air University Associate-to-Baccalaureate Cooperative, or AU-ABC, connects CCAF graduates with online four-year degree programs at regionally and nationally accredited postsecondary schools. However, while everyone is for obtaining goals, what good is an advanced degree for an Air Force enlisted member?
According to Dobbs, Airmen who are willing to put themselves through the rigor are motivated, determined and always looking for challenges.
“These types of people are not just doing something to check off boxes or fit the status quo,” Dobbs said. “They are people who are determined to do things to better themselves and those around them, and the Air Force benefits from having people of that caliber.”
With 23,206 CCAF graduates in 2015 and more than 1,900 AU-ABC enrollments in October alone, the question has to be do the skills learned in college translate to the military mission?
According to a 42nd Security Forces flight chief, Tech. Sgt. Derryn Beasley, it does, because obtaining advanced education enables enlisted Airmen to be better mentors.
“As you progress in the military, your job changes from being a technician to mentoring others, even junior officers,” said Beasley. “I believe a college degree, coupled with experience, gives you the credibility needed to do that.”
Beasley, who used tuition assistance to finish his CCAF associates degree in 2009, bachelor’s in 2013 and is three classes from a master’s, admits there were a lot of sacrifices, but believes it is about setting the example.
“I wanted to pursue education to set the example and be the whole-person the Air Force needs,” he said.
Beasley’s sentiments are shared by Bowles, who believes advanced education relates to being a better technician.
“I think pursuing education motivates Airmen and gives them life experiences that directly correlate to a higher performing technician,” said Bowles. “It also gives them real-life experiences to pass along to their future subordinates. Being a better technician that can adapt and think critically about their part of the mission will lead to better processes and innovation.”
According to Dobbs, the pursuit of education is contagious, and the Air Force benefits greatly by tracing much of its military innovations to an educated enlisted force.
“Educated enlisted Airmen benefit the Air Force mission by fostering an environment of excellence and critical thinking,” said Dobbs. “These Airmen will also continue to make the Air Force the best in the world because they will bring their innovative ideas to the table.”
According to Col. Ed Thomas, Barnes Center commander, what is impressive about these Airmen is they pursue these degrees at the busiest times of their lives as NCOs and SNCOs.
“This is the time in most Airmen’s careers when they are balancing the mission, young children and spouses at home, community involvement and education,” said the brigadier general select. “It’s not news that we have the smartest enlisted force on the planet, but we also have the best educated force on the planet. And it doesn’t happen by accident.”