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Penn State Partnership Helps Transform U.S. Army Leaders

Command Sgt. Maj. David Lee, Sgt. Maj. Deitra Alam, and Sgt. Maj. Robert Nelson, clockwise from left, are among the 78 U.S. Army sergeants major who have graduated with a master’s of education in lifelong learning and adult education through Penn State World Campus.  

From Penn State World Campus

Note: Employees of all Columbia Montour Chamber members, their spouses and dependents are eligible for a 5% discount on tuition through the PSU World Campus. 

A partnership between Penn State and the U.S. Army has been helping to transform the way the military branch teaches its soldiers to be leaders since 2015.

Nearly 80 Army sergeants major have graduated with a master’s of education in lifelong learning and adult education through Penn State World Campus, thanks to the partnership between World Campus, the College of Education, and the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy Fellowship Program (USASMA).

The program has graduated four cohorts and 78 sergeants major, and the most recent graduates were recognized at a celebration at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 27. A fifth cohort arrives this week.


Sergeants major from the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy Fellowship Program attended Penn State commencement in Aug. 2019. IMAGE: GREG BOND

Many Fellows have continued their careers as educators in and out of the military, including in the El Paso public school system, working in the U.S. government, or as students pursuing other degrees in higher education. Alumni have assumed leadership posts at organizations including the Non-Commissioned Officer Leadership Center of Excellence, the Department of Command Leadership, the National Guard Bureau, and the Nebraska National Guard. A program graduate also became the Army’s first enlisted soldier to publish a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Military Learning.   

One sergeant major, Robert Nelson, became the Army’s first noncommissioned officer to be selected for a fellowship in national security and foreign policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A 2018 Penn State graduate, Nelson now serves as an instructor in the Department of Army Operations and said the Army uses problem-based learning methodologies geared toward adults and adult learners.

“We’re providing structure and teaching sergeants based on experience and pertinent learning methods,” Nelson said. “Penn State has helped us use our model better and improve it.”

The Penn State-USASMA partnership is part of a broader push from the Army to change the way soldiers are taught, according to Command Sgt. Maj. David Lee, who earned his Penn State degree in 2016 and is now the USASMA director.

“We want to become facilitators and foster collaborative environments for adult learners,” Lee said. “We want younger sergeants, as they come up, to understand how to be a trainer and how to be an educator. What we want to see in the field, as we push this model down, is for students to understand how they as adult learners learn best.”

After completing their master’s degrees in one year, Fellows teach three years in the Sergeants Major Course, which prepares the military’s next generation of leaders with the skills they need on and off the battlefield. USASMA trains more than 750 newly selected sergeants major for future service in the Army.

Sgt. Maj. Deitra Alam, who attended Penn State’s summer commencement in August along with 13 members of her cohort, said the course work helped her see the difference between being a trainer and an educator.

“That was the big light bulb moment for me,” she said. “You have to take many things into consideration when you’re teaching adults. You need to consider the process of it, what capitalizes on the strengths of your adult learners, and how to design programs that cater to that.”

For Nelson, who is simultaneously pursuing a doctorate in education, he said his future would not have been possible without Penn State.

“Penn State really gave me the confidence to pursue higher education further on in my life,” he said. “I want to take what I’ve learned from Penn State and influence curriculum design to incorporate more adult learners.”

Visit the Penn State World Campus website for more information.

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