In the Eye of the Storm

March 15, 2004 – Day or night, reservists could be called to action across the globe. Keeping a watchful eye on events is crucial to the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s only Air Force Reserve unit, the 403rd Wing. Senior Master Sergeant William Parsons monitors all operations from a command center with enough sophisticated technology to rival the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. From this electronic vantage point, he and his Command Post team are the eyes and ears of the commander. It is his job to know what is going on in the world and to be ready at a moment’s notice to sound the alert.

As Chief of wing’s Command Post at Keesler Air Force base, Parsons monitors flying operations for two renowned squadrons, the “Hurricane Hunters” of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron and the “Flying Jennies” of the 815th Airlift Squadron. The wing has a dual mission. The Hurricane Hunters track down some of the world’s deadliest storms when they threaten U.S. interests and the Flying Jennies are a combat-hardened airlift unit that can land nearly anywhere with supplies, troops and equipment.

When he’s not monitoring storms, Parsons is working towards an undergraduate degree in engineering management. He attends Grantham University, which is located two hours away in Slidell, Louisiana, but Parsons doesn’t make that commute to attend classes. Grantham is a distance learning university, and all of its courses are offered online. He downloads course materials via the internet and communicates with instructors and advisors via e-mail. Parsons is able to work at his own pace. He can focus on his studies at times that are convenient, and when there’s a hurricane brewing, he can set aside his lessons for weeks at a time to deal with the pressing responsibilities of his job.

Parsons is one of several Grantham students in the 403rd Wing, and he’s part of a larger trend in distance education. The U.S. Department of Education released a study in July 2003 that found students enrolled in nearly 2.9 million college-level distance education courses in 2000-01, more than double the enrollment of 1997-98. Distance learning can mean taking courses through audio or video feeds, but schools that offer such courses are more likely to use the Internet, the study found. The distance learning model can be of increased value to military personnel who are deployed or who move frequently, or whose duty schedules make it difficult to attend traditional evening classes, and are unable to obtain an education through traditional channels.

Parsons has been in the military for over fifteen years and stationed at Keesler for close to seven. When he finished his professional military education, he wanted to continue to expand his opportunities by earning a degree from a civilian institution. With his fast-paced military career, a traditional university was virtually impossible. Parsons needs to be flexible, and be able to respond in emergencies without having to drop courses because of missing classes. His father called him when he heard about Grantham, and Parsons enrolled. A year later, three of his colleagues have enrolled at Grantham as well.

Distance education is an ideal fit for Parsons and his co-workers, he says, “because it allows you to work on your own time, at your own speed. I don’t have to fit things around someone else’s schedule. I can do my coursework when I have the time, and that works for me.”