Hundreds at U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy celebrate collegiate degrees in baccalaureate ceremony

May 21, 2008
BY Eric B. Pilgrim, The NCO Journal

FORT BLISS, Texas (May 19, 2008) - More than 300 Sergeants Major Course students attending Class 58 at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy shined up their dress shoes, adjusted awards and crossed the stage three days before their May 22 graduation.

Academy officials held a May 19 baccalaureate ceremony at Cooper Lecture Center to celebrate the students' outstanding achievements in earning a record number of collegiate diplomas while also juggling nine months of military education and dedicating more than 30,000 hours of volunteer assistance to the El Paso community. The college diplomas were earned in a host of fields and colleges, including two Homeland Security certificates from Excelsior College and 52 master's degrees.

Among the master's graduates sat Master Sgt. Robert Aldenberg, the class command sergeant major, who earned a Master of Arts in Management and Leadership from Webster University. Reflecting on how difficult it has been to find time to pursue a college education while in the military and particularly during deployments, he praised the academy for establishing its bachelors and masters-level agreements with several colleges.

Demographics reveal that Class 58 students began the academic year with 330 collegiate diplomas - including one doctoral degree. However, Aldenberg said so many more of his classmates had not had the opportunity to complete their education due to multiple deployments; and, in fact, 431 students arrived at the academy in August 2007 having deployed more than once. The class, as a whole, has deployed more than 1,530 times; an average of nearly 2.5 deployments per student.

Aldenberg also praised the academy for succeeding in leveling the educational playing field between commissioned and noncommissioned officers; an issue he witnessed firsthand four years ago as a first sergeant at the Chemical advanced noncommissioned officer course at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

While there, he saw chemical officers receive masters-level credit for their captains career coursework. However, his ANCOC students were receiving associates-level credit for their coursework, which he said was virtually identical to the officer course.

"I'm glad we're finally getting on the same sheet of music as the officers," Aldenberg said.

Also sitting in the sea of Class B-green were 13 students and three academy faculty members who took advantage of a new masters program offered by the University of Texas at El Paso that grants graduate-level credit for sergeant major coursework.

Officials at the university visited the academy last year in order to determine whether the Sergeants Major Course curriculum was advanced enough to warrant graduate-level credit. They walked away satisfied.

In addition to their academy coursework, the UTEP military students had to complete nine courses in a highly accelerated format in order to earn their degrees.

Of the record 302 Class 58 students receiving diplomas, 207 earned bachelor's degrees an additional 41 earned associate's degrees. Also sitting in the auditorium were 31 staff and faculty members and two spouses receiving diplomas; and Roxanna Taylor - the unassuming academy education advisor who, at times, kept operations flowing with no assistance or with assistance from one volunteer while all the time ensuring the students accomplished their goals.

Taylor's smile grew as she sat among a group of college representatives, watching the Class 58 students receive their green "diplomas." Her smile broadened when two young girls screamed "We love you, Daddy!" as a student shook the hand of guest speaker retired Brig. Gen. Jose D. Riojas, who works as the vice president of Strategic Initiatives at UTEP. She stood, virtually unnoticed as the crowd erupted in applause when the last student crossed the stage - she said that suits her just fine.

"When I watch their smiles and hear their families cheer for them as they walk across the stage, it always feels good," Taylor said. "It was a particularly good feeling this time because records were broken with this class, and the colleges really stepped up to the plate to make it a reality for the sergeants major. Being a part of that is an honor."