UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Air National Guard Captain Melissa Spencer has traveled the world as a military brat, calls home the top of the world, and now feels at home as a master of education graduate student in Penn State’s World Campus.
Spencer, recently promoted from lieutenant to captain, has served in the Air National Guard for 10 years and has been stationed at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks Alaska, and Randolph and Lackland Air Force Bases, both near San Antonio, Texas, before being sent to her current locale of Ramstein Air Force Base in the southwestern part of Germany. Ramstein Village has about 54,000 people in the area, the largest American population outside of the United States; that includes all other service branches, dependents and American civilians.
Because of her full-time service responsibilities, earning her master’s has been a glacially slow process, which is somewhat fitting given that her teenage years were spent living near North Pole, Alaska. But that’s OK with Spencer who, unlike during her high school tenure, now treasures academics.
“I love going to school,” Spencer said. “If I could go to school full-time the rest of my life, I would. I don’t want to be cliché, but there is something about learning and understanding things that I didn’t know before. I especially love learning about other perspectives or maybe the ‘unpopular’ perspective. The world is so big; we have so much to discover.”
The revelation of discovery came a bit late, she admitted. “I was not a very good student in high school,” Spencer said. “I was always focused on the social life of school. As I entered the last semester of my senior year, I found myself wondering where I would go and what I would do. My dad served 28 years in the Air Force as an enlisted security forces sergeant.
“I asked him what he thought about me maybe trying to join the Air Force like him; that was the first time someone explained the difference between being enlisted in the Air Force and being an officer.”
Spencer applied for the ROTC program but was turned down because of a low grade-point average. “Absolutely devastated, I went back to my dad and we came up with a plan for me to enlist,” she said. “He said I would have to work harder but I could commission one day if I was willing to put in the work.”
That work in the past continues to bode well for her future. She enlisted in the Alaska Air National Guard and found herself in boot camp six days after turning the tassel at her high school graduation.
She began pursuit of a nursing degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) before changing two years later to a business degree at the Fairbanks campus of Wayland Baptist University. “Wayland was a school that geared its courses for working adults and helped me graduate on time,” Spencer said.
Spencer calls herself a career airman. “I have been in a uniform since the day I enlisted, working every day like my active-duty brothers and sisters,” she said. “I have never held a civilian job … the thought scares me. I am absolutely a career airman. I love my job; it brings purpose.”
Spencer is a force support officer responsible for taking care of “everything people.” According to Spencer, people in that position handle promotions, assignments and other duties, whose new rank allows her more freedom to make decisions.
“As a captain, you have more influence, yet you also have more responsibility and less room to mess up,” she said.
And less time for classes. “I am only taking three credits per semester due to the high tempo of my job,” Spencer said. “I have taken two master’s classes in one semester before, and that was very difficult to balance.”
She just finished SSED 535, Teaching and Learning Historical Literacy with Media, with Scott Metzger, associate professor of education (social studies education). As a faculty member involved in designing the online degree program, Metzger said it is “truly rewarding” seeing it serve high-quality students like Melissa Spencer.
“One of the best reasons to offer an online degree is to help professionals meet their educational goals no matter where in the world they are, especially active-duty service personnel who otherwise don’t have easy access to classes,” Metzger said. “Being a part of Capt. Spencer’s academic success is not only a privilege for me personally, it is also an honor for the College of Education as a whole.
“Online degrees in education are offered by a lot of institutions. That students of her caliber are choosing Penn State reflects well on our efforts,” Metzger said.
Spencer said she took graduate courses from another university before starting at Penn State. “The most refreshing difference between the schools was the quality of the supporting text and materials,” she said. “The reading and assignment quality is just remarkable. You can tell the courses are intentionally built and the sources Penn State uses are only the best.”
Her military unit is supportive of education, she said, and will adjust her schedule if necessary. There are times when academic group work must be performed, and the six-hour time difference can make things difficult.
“I did a lot of research online prior to picking a graduate school and Penn State had easy access to resources for veterans,” Spencer said. “I called Penn State’s Veteran Affairs and someone picked up the phone. That had me sold.”
According to Metzger, Spencer’s classmates live and work across many different time zones, which requires all of them to make time for classwork on multiple days since there is not one common block of class time as with on-campus classes.
“Earning a master of education degree from Penn State takes a lot of dedication,” Metzger said. “When it was expanded to the World Campus, the faculty explicitly made the online classes as intellectually rigorous as their on-campus versions. Capt. Spencer chose to take on Penn State’s more demanding workload while actively serving overseas, which is really impressive.
“Each class involves reading educational research and scholarship plus multiple hours of academic writing and interactive communications every week. It isn’t easy for students like Melissa to take classes while working full time, but by conscientiously progressing through coursework every semester, and sometimes in the summer, she is going to reach her goal. And that hard work deserves to be saluted,” Metzger said.
Spencer said adapting to the military’s structure, strict timelines and expectations has made complying to Penn State’s academic requirements less complicated.
Her “perfect world,” as she explained it, would be to become an ROTC instructor.
“It would be my dream job,” Spencer said. “I would be ecstatic at the opportunity. I want to impact generations of Airmen by equipping them to think critically about the world around them and give them the tools they need to be successful in and out of uniform.”
At the moment, her job is to take care of people, giving them the tools they need to accelerate in their jobs.
“I am the most grateful when I see other people succeed; the best part of my job is helping others reach their goals,” Spencer said. “I might not have the skills to build technology or change the world, but I can help others who can do those things through teaching them leadership, decision-making, confidence and social intelligence.”
Relaying what she’s been taught would tie it all together. “I attribute all my success to the Air National Guard and how it has taken care of me since I was 18,” Spencer said. “I have been equipped to be successful in all aspects of my life, including education.
“Penn State gives me the opportunity to keep doing what I have been doing and get a quality education online. Not many schools have the benefits and reputation of Penn State,” she added. “I am very thankful.”