Sarah Gerke is earning a degree – in Baghdad
By Ralph Cohen
If you’re 19 and deployed in Iraq, odds are you’re not thinking about college. At least not until you get back to the states.
But then, you wouldn’t be Pfc. Sarah Gerke, an Army veteran. Thanks to online courses offered by Columbia College, Gerke forged ahead with her post-secondary career while residing in Baghdad’s Camp Liberty. She can even continue her education during missions outside the base.
“I joined the Army mainly for college,” Gerke says. “I knew my parents wouldn’t be able to support me [financially], and I’d have to find a way to get assistance.
“Also, it’s a family thing,” Gerke adds. “My parents were in the Army, and my older sister has already gone off and started her Army career as a member of the military police in Fort Bliss, Texas.”
Her mother, an officer in the reserves, also attended Columbia College and recommended its online courses to Gerke as a good fit for her military schedule. Gerke found it to be true. Between her military duties, Gerke completed her first two college courses.
“If we go out on a mission, there is no guarantee that we will come back the same day or that the place will have Internet,” Gerke says. “So I usually try to stay ahead on my classroom homework. That worked for algebra, but with American literature I had to e-mail my instructor a couple times asking for more time!”
Gerke credits both of her professors, Robert Boon in American literature and Patricia Murphy in algebra, with helping her through difficult logistics. At one point, she was incommunicado after a soldier on her base, suffering from combat fatigue, shot five military personnel. The Army declared the base’s phones and Internet access off-limits until the families could be notified.
Although Gerke has not decided on a major or a career, she says she enjoys performing topographical surveys, drainage surveys, soil analysis and drawing up plans for new buildings. She also has given some thought to being a residential draftsman to make use of the AutoCAD skills she has picked up in the Army. Whatever she does, however, she does well: Gerke recently won her battalion's soldier of the quarter award and was up for brigade soldier of the quarter. For the time being, however, her focus has been on finishing her general education requirements.
Being deployed in Iraq made online courses a necessity for Gerke, but she came to prefer them to in-seat classes. “The advantages of online courses are that I do my homework when I want to do homework,” she points out. “Plus, the whole course can be taken from my room. If I’m in a regular classroom and I don’t want to be there, I tend to doze off or not pay attention. But if I’m doing the class on my time, then the class starts when I’m ready for it to start.”
Gerke decided to continue her education online when her tour ended in late summer. And she's convinced her husband, who works in the far safer field of welding, to enroll at Columbia College, too.
This past summer, Newsweek was intrigued enough to interview the technical engineering specialist for a story on young people who choose to take online courses. Read the Newsweek article