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.

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.

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