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Mortar fire and mosquitoes don't stop class

There are excuses for missing college course assignments, and then there are excuses.

A mortar attack might qualify as the latter.

But for Craig Michael of Brandon, unusual circumstances were the norm as he juggled course work through Saint Leo University's Internet distance learning program with the demands of military service and a tour in Iraq.

Michael, 40, is one of 3,300 students obtaining degrees from Saint Leo over the Internet, university spokeswoman Doyia Turner said. The program started with 80 students in 1999 but has taken off, especially among nontraditional older students balancing life's demands with school.

"I really admire the online students," Turner said. "It sounded at first a bit diploma millish, but it's real work and a real degree. It's the same degree students earn on campus or at our centers. It's so structured and so organized, you can see the hours that went into designing this."

Michael, married and with three sons, is an Air Force master sergeant with a specialty in communications systems. He has been in the service 21 years and is in what would be considered his junior year at Saint Leo as he pursues a bachelor's degree in computer information systems. Although thousands of military students take courses at the university's 15 education centers in five states, including one at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, where Michael is based, he said his schedule makes the Internet courses more appealing.

"I can be deployed six to eight months out of the year," he said. "And when the orders come, they come like that. I pack up, and I'm gone." The call came last year that would send him to Iraq. He had just started two courses, a computer language course on a software program called Visual Basic, and statistics.

Stationed in the Baghdad area, Michael found himself working seven days a week with a team of communications specialists.

"Before I left, I let my professors know, and they usually work with you," he said. "But I was prepared to withdraw from the classes. I didn't know what the conditions would be. I had all the paperwork to withdraw filled out before I left."

Instead, he kept working on the classes, despite workdays that sometimes stretched to 12 and 14 hours, and an Internet connection that was always slow, and sometimes nonexistent.

"It takes discipline and time management," he said. "You do the work when you can, because if you procrastinate, you don't know what might happen next."

Sometimes, it was a mortar attack on the base that shut everything down and put everyone on alert. Then there was the constant threat of stray bullets from shots fired into the air. And there were sandstorms, mosquitoes and regular power outages.

"And if we got sent into the field, I'd have to let my professor know I would be out of contact for a while," Michael said. "Sometimes a day, sometimes two or three."

Turner said the experiences of Michael and others in battle prove that online learning works. And if it works under those conditions, it proves the program can help others, such as busy working people, or stay-at-home moms busy with children.

The program does put a new burden on professors, she said. They have to be available for online chats and e-mail sessions, and they need to be able to produce online lectures that explain the subject matter clearly. But the university is finding a niche in the competitive field of education by serving students, Turner said.

"It's a wave of the future, and it helps Saint Leo stand out among other private institutions," she said. "You have to be more student-focused, instead of faculty or staff focused."

Michael made it through his three-month deployment and back to Brandon. And he made it through his classes.

He earned A's in both.

"It was very hard, and you have to work at it," he said. "But maintaining a good GPA is important. Online courses might not work for everyone, but if you work at them, they work for you."