LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. --
One of the first conversations I had with Airmen when I arrived at my first duty station was centered on how I couldn't earn a Community College of the Air Force degree. To say I was angry would be an understatement.
When I joined the Air Force Jan. 13, 2009, I was automatically enrolled into the CCAF, with the promise that if I put in the time and effort, I would be able to graduate with an Associate of Applied Science degree in Public Affairs. Now that promise had been seemingly taken away - and no one seemed to know why.
To me, this was unacceptable. One of the primary reasons I had enlisted was to earn my college education, while serving my country. Granted, I wanted to get a four-year degree, so it seemed almost silly to be stressing myself over an inability to earn an Associate. Looking back, I really didn't understand the intrinsic value of a CCAF degree.
In addition to potentially serving as a bridge between a high-school diploma and a Bachelor's degree, a CCAF is also a golden bullet for Airmen seeking to enhance their career. It shows a personal and professional investment in the Air Force when an Airmen devotes their time toward pursuing a degree related to their career field.
However, as a brand new Airman, none of that resonated with me. I didn't understand the advantages of having a CCAF degree. All I understood was someone, somewhere, had made the decision that I couldn't earn one. I was furious. But, instead of wallowing in my rage, I decided to let it motivate me.
My first step was to schedule a meeting with my education office to find out the real reason I was being denied a CCAF degree. Interestingly enough, my predicament wasn't limited to Public Affairs Airmen - it affected all Airmen who attended a joint-base technical school. The issue tracked back to basic military training, which used to provide graduating Airmen with four physical fitness and residency hours toward their CCAF degree. Unfortunately, Airmen who enlisted after Jan. 1, 2009 were subject to a change of policy.
BMT lost the ability to provide Airmen with residency hours. As I learned from the education office, these hours are awarded when an Airman attends an educational program at an approved Air Force school or facility. Air Force tech schools award Airmen with the 16 residency hours needed to fulfill the requirement for CCAF graduation. However, Airmen who attend joint-base tech schools are only awarded 12 residency hours - making the four BMT hours absolutely essential.
The initial solution provided by the education office was for me to wait until I completed Airman Leadership School, which would net me the residency hours needed to graduate. However, any Airman shooting for a senior Airman below-the-zone promotion can tell you that having a CCAF degree can mean the difference between earning that stripe six-months early or not. I wanted to be competitive and earn my college degree as soon as possible.
The education office advised me to pursue a Bachelor's degree in tandem to my CCAF degree; that way, in case I couldn't earn my Associate degree, I would still have a fall-back plan. I learned I could transfer credits between my CCAF and my Bachelors, as they were weighted the same. I also learned I could take College Level Examination Program test, as well as Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support tests, which would give me instant college credit - provided I passed the exams.
Armed with this knowledge, I set to work on my degrees. I took CLEP and DANTES tests whenever I could, literally earning all of my general-education requirements in a few months. As I was doing this, I also took online classes toward my Bachelor of Arts in English degree, which I periodically transferred to my CCAF degree.
As time went on, I saw the number of credits needed to graduate, with both my bachelors and my CCAF, dwindle. Once I had earned all 64 credits necessary for CCAF graduation, I began to look for options toward earning my residency hours. The more people I talked to, the more I heard ALS was my only option.
I was fortunate to earn a BTZ promotion, and rounding out the final credits toward my Bachelor's degree. So I considered giving up and waiting for ALS. However, a little voice in my head stopped me from quitting. I had come this far without giving up, why would I stop now?
With newfound determination, I decided to take my problem straight to the source - CCAF itself. It took a few tries to get in touch with someone who understood my unique situation. They agreed that not being able to earn a CCAF as an Airman, simply because an individual attended a joint-base tech school, put that Airmen on unequal footing when it came to career development and progression.
After making a few calls on my behalf and coordinating with other people at CCAF, my contact came back to me with a solution. She introduced me to Air University, an Air Force program which provides in-residence or distance-learning courses designed to educated Airmen on emerging "geo-political challenges faced by the United States" and its international partners.
If I took a course through Air University, it would net me three residency hours. From there, CCAF could transfer an existing credit from my apprentice-skill-level internship to my residency hours, giving my all the credits I would need to graduate.
The only reason this happened, as I was told, was because I came to CCAF after completing all possible credits toward my degree. So, without hesitation, I signed up for Introduction to Cross-Cultural Communication.
Passing the course proved to be much more satisfying than I had imagined. As soon as I received the notification of my grade, I called CCAF, who worked their magic on my degree progress report. Once the tiny, residency-hour box, which had been the bane of my existence for more than two years, was checked, I immediately called my education office to register for graduation.
As luck would have it, I happened to be deployed when the graduation ceremony took place. However, when I returned home, I was told my education office held my degree for me. Having already earned my Bachelor's degree, earning my CCAF degree caused another swelling of personal pride.
For the people out there pursuing a higher education, I can say from personal experience that there are few things better than hearing someone congratulate you for joining the 30 percent of Americans with a Bachelor's degree, as well as the roughly 40 percent of Americans with an Associate degree.
It makes me smile to look back at the past three years of my military career, and realize my drive and passion for education came from someone telling me I couldn't do something. And as I look ahead to September 2012, when I will graduate with a Master of Business Administration, I also realize that none of this would have been possible without the support and opportunities provided to me by the Air Force.
Earning my degrees, despite the roadblocks placed in front of me, solidified something my father told me the day I left for BMT.
"The Air Force can change you for the better," he said. "If you let it."
And it has.
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