FORT BRAGG — Sgt. First Class Thomas Peters is the kind of student the military wants, and the kind of soldier a university loves.
Since he joined the Army right out of an Indiana high school 20 years ago, Peters had pretty much given up on going back to school. Then he learned a couple of years ago that he could get community college credit for courses he had taken and for experience he had gained during his years in Special Operations at Fort Bragg.
With the hours he was given credit for, he had to take only a few more courses to get an associates degree from Fayetteville Technical Community College.
In turn, he could apply that degree toward a bachelors at a four-year college, including any of the 17 in the University of North Carolina system.
Tuesday, the commanding general of Army Special Operations and the president of the UNC System renewed a four-year-old agreement that gives soldiers such as Peters a way to work toward an advanced degree. The pact also gives university faculty and students a way to test theories in the practical setting of a busy military base.
Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland and UNC President Tom Ross signed the new agreement during a ceremony in the lobby of the Special Operations Command headquarters building on post.
The agreement was first forged in 2009 on the notion that there must be ways in which the military and academic communities could collaborate so that each would benefit. About 4,000 soldiers have pursued associate degrees at the Fayetteville technical college during the initial phase of the pact.
Lt. Col. David Walton, director of education for the Armys Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, where special operations soldiers take most of their required courses, said the arrangement builds on the best of both worlds.
The military stays so busy doing things, we dont have time to think about them very much, he said. Meanwhile, in university labs and classrooms, Everything that were busy doing, theyre busy thinking about.
The military could find practical uses for research in dozens of academic departments, including strength and conditioning, nutrition, rehabilitation and physical therapy, traumatic brain injury, engineering, sociology, political science, behavioral science, information systems, foreign languages, medical studies and others. Meanwhile, President Barack Obamas administration has been looking for ways to reduce unemployment among veterans, many of whom find it difficult to translate their military skills to civilian jobs.
In another part of the agreement, UNC schools and Special Operations have been arranging summer internships in which students work at Fort Bragg.
Ross said that in instances where soldiers attend classes on campus at UNC schools, they are a source of knowledge for their mostly younger and less experienced classmates. Walton added that theyre also highly motivated students who can manage a 10-hour workday and still get their assignments done.
With my years of military experience, I know what a timeline looks like, said Sgt. Peters, the soldier-student. I know how to identify an objective and meet a goal.
Having access to degree programs in the UNC system makes these students better soldiers, Walton said. While the military is great at training soldiers, the university system is better at educating them, he said.
Sgt. Peters hopes his degrees will help him when he gets out of the military, too. Peters took his associates degree from FTCC and applied it toward a bachelors at Southern New Hampshire University, where he has taken classes online. Hell graduate in June, and in September, hell start working on a master of science degree in psychology, also through Southern New Hampshires online program.
Peters, now 40, plans to retire from the Army next year. Once he has his masters in hand, he hopes to get a civilian job, possibly managing volunteer programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs.