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CCAF degree creates opportunity for career progression

Janice Fisher, Cero Coso Community College instructor, teaches speech class to Edwards students March 16. Edwards partnered with Cero Coso to provide more classes as part of "2009 Year of the Community College of the Air Force degree."
The initiative aims to encourage all Airmen to accomplish the requirements to receive their degree. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)

Janice Fisher, Cero Coso Community College instructor, teaches speech class to Edwards students March 16. Edwards partnered with Cero Coso to provide more classes as part of "2009 Year of the Community College of the Air Force degree." The initiative aims to encourage all Airmen to accomplish the requirements to receive their degree. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- An apple sitting on a stool crushed his hopes. What seemed to be an object smaller than a man's fist eventually became larger than life, like the fictional giant gorilla "King Kong," scaring a 25-year-old senior airman away. 

It was English 101. Then Senior Airman Anthony Accurso's first assignment was a descriptive paper about the apple. He wrote the paper and felt really good about his work. But the next school day proved otherwise. As he read his classmates' works, he saw how his schoolmates described the apple; they were like written by "doctors." 

"When I reviewed my paper, their works intimidated me to the point that I thought 'maybe I am getting way over my head,'" he said. 

He got scared and walked away. 

Now a technical sergeant, he is trying to slay his "King Kong." Sergeant Accurso is taking speech classes for his College Level Examination Program, a series of examinations that test an individual's college-level knowledge gained through course work, studies and experience. In April, he will begin taking up aviation history classes from an online school. 

Sergeant Accurso, noncommissioned officer in charge for the 412th Logistics Test Squadron's Airborne Laser Program, is now working toward his Community College of the Air Force degree. 

The college is one of several federally chartered degree-granting institutions. However among the five branches of the military, Air Force is the only service with a free two-year college for its enlisted personnel. It is accredited through Air University by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award associate degrees. 

The sergeant is one of many Airmen who Edwards enlisted leaders want to focus on with their "2009 Year of CCAF Degree" initiative. This initiative aims to provide an avenue for Airmen, specifically NCOs and above, to work on their associate degree. Edwards enlisted leadership, through "Year of CCAF degree," aims to encourage all Airmen to accomplish the requirements to receive their degree -- a tall order but idealistic program. 

"The goal of this initiative is to challenge our NCOs to pursue their Community College of the Air Force degrees in a focused manner that brings increased importance and expedites their degree program," said Chief Master Sgt. Mark Brejcha, 412th Test Wing command chief. 

"Year of the CCAF degree" is a joint enlisted initiative between 95th Air Base Wing and 412th TW, in concert with other organization and enlisted leaders who have interests in education. 

Mentoring the mentors 

Entering the office of Senior Master Sgt. Chester Spaulding, 412th Logistics Test Squadron superintendent, one could see three diplomas displayed prominently on his wall -- one each for his CCAF, bachelors and masters degree. As a poster child for everything that is CCAF, Sergeant Spaulding was appointed as the 412th TW's education guru. 

He works with his 95th ABW counterpart, Senior Master Sgt. Michael Giese, 95th CG superintendent, in sending the Airmen's educational needs to the education center. As part of Year of the CCAF initiative, Edwards enlisted leadership assembled more than 20 Airmen, regardless of their rank, to be education mentors. Key requirement for the volunteer duty is a Community College of the Air Force degree and above; some already have their masters. 

These mentors identify Airmen and NCOs' educational needs, such as what classes to take and the requirements they have to accomplish for their degree. One of the main obstacles these Airmen need to hurdle is the "big five" -- English, math, speech, social science and humanities. 

"Basically, the mentors lead the horse to the water," Chief Brejcha said. "They help these NCOs make that appointment at the Education Office. They give them the Web site for online classes." 

Each of these mentors sponsors at most 10 people, working with each one to encourage participation and develop an educational plan. An idea that is similar to wingman concept. 

"They relay back to me what classes those Airmen need," Sergeant Spaulding said. "This is all volunteer effort. We are in the process of getting information so that the Education Center knows we need this X number of math or English classes." 

The group that the Year of the CCAF degree initiative aims to target is the NCO rank, but it also helps senior airmen and senior NCOs. Overall, the initiative has identified approximately 1,200 enlisted Airmen without CCAF degrees. 

Though the initiative stresses the immediate accomplishment of their CCAF, the mentors are recommending Airmen, from airman basic to senior airman, to finish their Career Development Course first and have their skills updated before embarking on their CCAF journey. 

"We want them concentrate at one thing at a time," Chief Brejcha said. "Let's get through your CDCs first, and as soon as they are done, boom, they can go to the education office and sign up for classes."

Back when ... 

It was Airman's Magazine that did it. An education issue of the magazine prompted the base's top two enlisted Airmen to decide for the big push to promote Community College of the Air Force degree. They saw a familiar image of Chief Master Sgt. Juan Lewis, former 95th ABW command chief, posted on the magazine with an article stressing the importance of education. 

"We knew we had to get something going on here as well," said Chief Master Sgt. Eric Jaren, 95th ABW command chief. "We are not looking for the numbers. We think it is very important to get this done." 

It was a goal that Chief Jaren said was not stressed when he was a young Airman. 

"Back when guys like Chief Brejcha and I joined the Air Force, it wasn't necessarily popular for enlisted people to become educated," Chief Jaren said. "In fact, in some career fields, you hear things like 'Why are you going to school for? Do you want to be an officer?' It had a negative connotation to it. That shouldn't be the case." 

Mowing the lawns, ground maintenance, mopping the floors, cleaning the trash and painting the buildings were some of the menial jobs he did. 

"It wasn't frowned upon because that's what we did," Chief Jaren said. "Nowadays, we hire contractors to do that because the varied duties of our enlisted corps are essential in conducting our operations. We are professionals now."

'Educated Airmen means a better educated Air Force' 

Community College of the Air Force is important, and the base leadership can't stress it enough. 

"It is very important because it is our future," Chief Brejcha said. "It is our future as an Air Force." 

For Airmen's career progression, an associate degree is their stepping stone for furthering their profession as well as applying for Air Force special duties, such as military instructor, first sergeant and command chief. 

"It is required for career progression," Chief Jaren said. "It does weigh in for promotion. You need to have it for senior rater endorsement and other things." 

In addition, Chief Brejcha said CCAF degree can lead to higher education, such as bachelors degree, and in some cases, it will even go on to masters. 

"The benefits are more personal," he said. "You exercise your mind. It is going to make you a better technician, it will make you an informed citizen and you can communicate better. There are so many personal benefits." 

With the CCAF being regionally accredited, Airmen can take that degree and apply to almost any other college out there. 

"Though Year of the CCAF degree, we want to provide the motivation and the catalyst, for all the right reason, to have people go out and take on this extra effort," Chief Jaren said. "Finish your degree now because the CCAF isn't the end of the road. It is really just the beginning."

Bravery 

Sergeant Accurso came back. He is not scared anymore. 

"I realized I am a little older and more mature," Sergeant Accurso said. "It is going to benefit me. I think the most important thing is because I am in the leadership position  where I am out there talking about the importance of education, and I felt hypocritical that I hadn't gone and done it myself." 

When Sergeant Accurso graduates, he will be the first one to have a degree in his family. He said he also wants to show his 10-year-old daughter that "if this old guy can do it, she can too."