You can sense the pride in Sgt. Maj. Thomas Smith’s voice as he talks about his 30-year career in the United States Marine Corps. In addition to helping coordinate information for air commands, Smith was in charge of handling discipline and family problems within the divisions of Marine Air Control Group 48 in Great Lakes, Illinois.
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, and that earning a college degree can help them build a solid foundation for their future.
Making the commitment to get an education
After retiring from the military, Smith became a teacher at a military academy, a position which required much of his weekday schedule to be focused on his students. With this commitment, plus an hour’s commute, he knew an online learning option would make the best use of his limited time.
Smith’s niece, a University of Phoenix MBA alum, introduced him to the flexibility of the school’s online degree programs. With her encouragement, he enrolled at the University’s School of Security and Criminal Justice. He discovered how the online degree program could help him educationally prepare for his desired career that involved managing security details.
So, after putting in a full day’s work as a teacher, he would make the long drive home from the academy to be a student himself. And though pursuing a degree online was a convenient option for Smith, it still required discipline. Leading by example, Smith showed his students that college is possible – even with the constraints and responsibilities of a busy life.
Combining military and education
Smith revels in the fact that he has the opportunity to teach and influence kids every day, most of whom come from rough neighborhoods or 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.”
When Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (also a former Marine) reached out to Smith to help him found the Marine Math and Science Military Academy, he answered the call and worked hard to establish the military academy, where he now teaches. The academy instills a sense of structure, leadership and citizenship among its students by the time they graduate. He and other instructors encourage older students to lead younger ones by example.
Working with high school students every day, Smith has the chance to impress upon them the importance of education – and his own student status reflects the importance of a college degree.
“My job is to make them realize their future is 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
Enhancing your career and your life through education isn’t just for the under-18 crowd – and Smith knows this from experience. Pursuing a college degree later in life can help transition people into new opportunities.
“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.”