My job is to make them realize their future NOW

"Make yourself happy and proud that you graduated."

— Thomas Smith, Sergeant Major, United States Marine Corps – served 1976-2006
Associate of Arts with a concentration in Criminal Justice, August 2010

It’s easy to sense the pride in Sgt. Maj. Thomas Smith’s voice as he talks about his 30-year career in the United States Marine Corps. He rose to the rank of Sergeant Major of Marine Air Control Group 48 in Great Lakes, Ill., where he advised commanding officers on daily developments in the division. In addition to helping coordinate information for air commands, Smith also was in charge of handling discipline and family problems within the divisions.

One of Smith’s favorite experiences while in the military was going to local schools to encourage students from all walks of life to stay in school. He impressed upon them that earning a college degree will always provide a path to follow and a solid foundation on which to build their future, whether or not they joined the service after graduating high school.

What’s perhaps most curious about Smith is that he didn’t go back to college himself until after he’d retired from the Marines in 2006.

Making the commitment to get an education

Smith’s decision to go to college after already having a distinguished military career came with a lot of thought because of the commitment involved. After retiring, he became a teacher at a military academy, which meant his weekdays would be focused on his students. With his teaching commitment, plus an hour’s commute to and from the academy on a daily basis, he knew an online learning option would make the best use of his limited time.

He learned about the online degree programs at University of Phoenix from his niece who’d earned her master’s in business there. With her encouragement, Smith enrolled at the University to study criminal justice. The degree program meshed with the Marine mentality to protect and serve, and aligned with his preference for job roles that involve managing security details.

And so, after putting in a full day’s work as a teacher, he makes the long drive home from the academy and becomes a student himself. While pursuing a degree online is a convenient option for Smith, it still takes a lot of discipline. He leads his students by example, showing them that college is possible despite time constraints and life responsibilities. In fact, he earned his associate’s degree in August 2010, and is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration/Management degree at University of Phoenix.

Combining military and education

Education is very important to Smith. He ensured that he didn’t go to college until after his own three children completed their schooling. And now, working with high-school students every day, he has the chance to impress upon them the importance of education—and his own student status is proof of just how important he believes a college degree is.

Smith’s students have been benefiting from what he learns in his virtual classroom. “Every little piece of information I get there, I bring into the classroom where I teach,” he says. “Everything I learn, I bring it straight from [University of] Phoenix!”

Smith gets to teach and influence kids every day, most of whom come from rough neighborhoods and single-parent homes. “You have to learn how to evaluate kids,” he explains. “Just because they’re rough doesn’t mean they can’t handle it. The youth of today are the future. If I can save one kid off the street, then maybe that kid will help 100 more. It’s all about the kids. Get them on the right path and keep them there. I don’t want to sit by watching kids getting handcuffs slapped on them. I care.”

He cared enough to take action when he had the chance—by helping establish the military academy at which he teaches. The creation of the public college-prep high school on the west side of Chicago answered a call by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, himself a former Marine, to found the Marine Math and Science Military Academy. All the instructors are retired Marine veterans who bring their unique experiences and training to their classrooms. Now in its fourth year, the academy instills a sense of structure, leadership and citizenship among its students by the time they graduate. He and the other instructors encourage older students to lead younger ones by example.

“My job is the make them realize their future now,” says Smith. “Some kids realize it too late. You have to have short-, mid- and long-term goals—write them down—because now is when you start planning for your future.”

Learning in order to transition

Smith knows first-hand that getting an education isn’t just for the under-18 crowd. It’s a lifelong process, and pursuing a college degree later in life can help transition people into new opportunities. And that includes going from military to civilian life. He himself has used his education to help him migrate from a military role to an educator role in a public high school.

“I encourage my fellow Marine veterans to go back to college to pursue a degree. Sure, the transition is hard—there’s a different way of learning now. You just have to learn to apply yourself just as you would to your job or to the military. But you’re bettering yourself, for a better future. I’d tell them the same thing I tell the kids I teach: Make yourself happy and proud that you graduated.”