Face of Defense: Soldier eyes doctorate after rapidly completing degrees

by Amy Perry
Army Garrison Fort Lee

FORT LEE, Va., Aug. 23, 2017 — As the youngest of six children and first in his family to graduate from high school, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Bowling was not in any rush to start collegiate-level coursework.

But, after his arrival here to serve as an instructor in the 91B wheeled vehicle maintenance department and facing retirement in five short years, he said, he decided it was time to get started.

"I was a little nervous at first, because I didn't get the best grades in school and was on academic probation for most of it," he said. "After my first semester in college here, though, I made the dean's list and graduated cum laude with my bachelor's degree. It came easy, so I just decided to keep going."

Bowling said he can't imagine himself doing this coursework right out of high school, because he didn't have any real-life experiences at that point. "But it's easy to apply a lot of military principles like leadership, for example, to my coursework in college," he added. "The same things they teach us about leading in the Army can apply to corporations."

He started his post-high-school academic career with six online classes per semester at Liberty University, two more than the number that qualifies for full-time status. Once he realized he would fall a few classes short of a bachelor's degree before an upcoming promotion board, he said, he requested a waiver from the school to take seven classes per semester, leading to completion of his bachelor's degree in a mere 14 months.

Some of his military education counted toward elective credits, but only one class in his degree program was credited for his military experience, he said.

Graduate School

After hearing horror stories from his fellow soldiers about taking breaks between degrees, Bowling said, he went headfirst into a master's degree program and completed it in 14 months. Now, he has set his sights on Liberty's doctorate of educational leadership program.

He plans to complete the program in two years, he said, mostly during his upcoming 12-month unaccompanied tour to South Korea. His move is already underway, and afterward, he will join his family at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

"I chose my doctorate because I discovered I love teaching," Bowling said. "It's also the only one Liberty offers a military discount on."

Looking toward the end of his Army career, Bowling said he decided to keep pursuing additional degrees to set himself up to retire. His goal is to get a job with the Department of Defense Education Activity schools system, he said. "This degree will allow me to be a superintendent or principal with one of the schools," he explained, noting that several installations – including Fort Campbell, where he intends to retire – have DoD schools.

Education Funding

Bowling said he used tuition assistance for his classes, but that only covered five or six courses each year. He made up the difference with Pell Grants and Virginia tuition assistance grants, making it possible to have no out-of-pocket expenses for his schooling.

His wife joined him in his academic pursuits and has completed an associate's degree. She is finishing her bachelor's degree now and has used many of the same programs for her tuition.

"My wife and I looked online for all the free grants we could use for our schooling," Bowling said. "It really helped. A lot of soldiers are limited because the tuition assistance is only enough for five courses and a bit more each year. I shared information with my department on finding grants to help out the other instructors, as well."

Getting his degree while in the service is important, Bowling noted, as he already has given his son – now 26 – his Post 9/11 G.I. Bill. His wife received the remainder to help with her tuition costs. The couple's younger children – all girls, 13, 12 and 5 – are looking forward to going to college, and Bowling said he and his wife want to set a good example for them about continuing education. "My parents only had an 8th-grade education, so it's nice to set an example for your children," he said.

Making Time for Coursework

Bowling acknowledged there was a lot of coursework associated with his schooling, but said he was able to keep most of it restricted to downtime at work.

"Everyone looked at me crazy when I told them how many courses I was working on, but if you balance it right, it works out fine," he said. "During lunch, I was doing school work. After physical training, I would shower, go back to work and do more school work. I did very little at home, mostly using any break to do a little bit at a time."

Others in his department realized they could advance their schooling in the same method, Bowling said, and everyone in the module he taught ended up going to school, including a civilian counterpart.

The department's previous sergeant major, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Patricio Cardonavega, now the command sergeant major for 16th Ordnance Battalion, 59th Ordnance Brigade, said he is proud of his soldiers for advancing their schooling. He completed his bachelor's degree while he was the wheeled vehicle maintenance department's sergeant major, he said, and he attributed some of the changing culture to his troops realizing the importance of education.

"I am extremely excited that highlighting educational goals is becoming part of the culture," Cardonavega said. "When I arrived in the schoolhouse, the number of instructors pursuing an education was around 18 percent, and when I left, it was around 64 percent. To some extent, this was because of their willingness to emulate my efforts as I was completing my degree. Promoting education exalts a commitment to lifelong learning while creating a level of positive competitiveness inevitably preparing them for life outside of the Army."

Noncommissioned officers who have attained advanced degrees foster an environment of relevance pertaining to societal changes, he said, and have the potential to serve more effectively in leadership positions.

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