As a young Black American growing up in East St. Louis, people told me I would never go to college — that it wasn’t for me. My own teachers even told me I wasn’t smart enough to go.
That mentality stuck with me through my early adult years. At 33, I had 15 years of service in the Navy under my belt. I had my sights on retiring from the military, but not necessarily setting foot inside a classroom. I began seeking advice from my mentors in the Navy, and made my way through several jobs fairs. While people lauded my military experience, one thing became clear: I would need a four-year degree to be competitive.
At that time, online higher education was looked down upon — something “less than” a traditional brick-and-mortar school. And frankly, back then I believed it.
At the same time, online programs were my only avenue to pursue a degree. I was still an active-duty Navy SEAL and would continue to serve in the military for five more years.
I saw college as a means to an end — something to check the box and move on with my life.
The upcoming fall semester will be different than what many expected, but there are still plenty of ways to succeed in an impromptu online education.
As it turned out, everything I thought I knew about virtual education was wrong. The extent to which these courses demanded a high level of student interaction took me by surprise. Topical discussions and debates with classmates and professors sparked my academic curiosity in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I was where I was told I would never be — in college.
I deployed three times during my college studies — to Iraq, Afghanistan and the UAE. When I wasn’t deployed, I was on training trips to prepare for deployment. I was on the road more than at home.
When you’re an active-duty service member — or any working adult — completing a college degree can be a daunting task. Modular coursework, the ability to pace my classes to meet my needs, and shorter class terms meant I could plan ahead, schedule around my deployments, and be able to fully participate.
Navigating the coursework wasn’t the only hurdle. The enrollment process had its own challenges, especially for a first-time student without college counselors to guide me through it.
That’s why it was such a big deal when Ashford University helped get me started on my journey. They helped me take the leap, and I did the rest. Upon completing my coursework and earning my degree, I went on to graduate from one of the top business schools in the nation and now run my own business.
Hearing at a young age that you don’t have the smarts or the right background to achieve your dreams cuts right through a person’s self-worth and how they see the future. Online education sets students up for success no matter where they are in life.
I think the University of Arizona’s recent acquisition of my alma mater will give even more students like me a chance at success, especially through its land-grant mission, which provides educational opportunity to the diverse citizens of Arizona and the world — especially those who have traditionally been left out.
I often think back to that kid in East St. Louis and that active-duty Navy SEAL researching schools and rushing to get to that next stage in life. Now, I can say that his pursuit of a college degree was more than just checking a box.
Once I found the right path and a program that provided the flexibility and encouragement to succeed, I couldn’t be stopped. More than proving my old teachers or my younger self wrong, my experience shows just how valuable and transformative online higher education can be.
Ty Smith is a retired United States Navy SEAL senior chief with 20 years of service. He is founder and CEO of CommSafe [ai], a technology company that specializes in conflict and violence prevention. He currently serves on the Ashford University Board of Trustees.