Specialized military training forms
bedrock of bachelor’s completion program © June 22, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

Members of the first class of SSDA students [clockwise from top] Army Sgt. Major Keith Filipp, Terry Cole and James Karr, discuss their experience several days before their June 2012 graduation.

photos by Jordan Silverman, staffMembers of the first class of SSDA students [clockwise from top] Army Sgt. Major Keith Filipp, Terry Cole and James Karr, discuss the program several days before their June 2012 graduation.

Three men who visited the Vermont campus of Norwich University in late spring of 2012 had a lot in common.

All had retired—or were about to retire—from active-duty positions with the U.S. Army Special Forces. All continue to serve in jobs associated with Special Operations that utilize their knowledge of foreign relations related to unconventional warfare, nation building and counterterrorism. All struggled with their Statistics class. All, as younger men, turned to the military after brief stints in college proved unsatisfactory.

In a few days, they would have something else in common. Terry Cole, Sgt. Maj. Keith Filipp and James Karr were three of seven students in the first class to graduate from a unique online program that helped them earn the academic credentials important for the civilian world. They came to Norwich to receive their diplomas and vist the brick-and-mortar campus.

I think this is a very good stepping stone to something bigger and better for our community.

Sgt. Maj. Keith Filipp
SSDA student

“It’s always been hanging over my head. ‘Gee. I could do so many other things if I just had my degree,’” said Karr, who left active duty in 2007 and works for the Joint Civil Affairs Office at Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla.

The program, Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis [SSDA], is designed specifically for soldiers, reservists, Guardsmen, civilians and veterans associated with Special Operations to earn a bachelor’s degree. It’s a curriculum heavy in sociology, anthropology, geography, cultural awareness, regional politics and international conflict, and aimed at people who have learned these subjects on the job.

Filipp, who will retire in October after 29 years with the military, took many academic courses during his career, but never pursued a degree until he began to think about his future in the civilian world.

“As I studied different programs, I just wasn’t finding anything that I could take my past experience and connect it to,” said Filipp, who learned about SSDA when he ran into CGCS Dean William Clements during a promotional visit to Ft. Bragg in North Carolina.

At Norwich, Filipp found a program that would allow him to both refine and capitalize on his existing skills. As a soldier, he was accustomed to studying countries where he was stationed, crunching data about history, politics, geography and culture. Now, he has a deeper understanding of this kind of research, and has learned to create usable “products” to make effective arguments. These are skills he believes are beneficial to many people in Special Forces.

“I think this is a very good stepping stone to something bigger and better for our community,” said Filipp.

Karr came out of the military with operations management experience he felt would translate easily to media relations and mass marketing jobs, but was frustrated to learn recruiters weren’t interested in candidates without the critical “piece of paper.”

“It didn't matter how many years’ experience you had, in how many countries doing how many different things,” said Karr, adding that education opportunities for enlisted soldiers often don’t mesh with civilian degree programs.

He was pleased by how well SSDA let him utilize past experience. For example, a class field study allowed him to draw on research he had conducted while working in Iraq, where he served on a government civilian cultural-studies team for much of the time he was enrolled. For the study, Karr focused on the cultural divide between Islamic Sunni and Shia factions stretching back 1,600 years in the southern Iraq region. He was able to draw on interviews he had conducted with more than 1,500 Iraqis.

“The professors realized I had a unique opportunity,” said Karr, who is preparing to commission with the Navy and begin a new career as an intelligence officer, and has also enrolled in Norwich’s online Master of Diplomacy [MDY] program.

The SSDA program was challenging, he added, and forced him to present information with stronger support and documentation. In essence, he’s able to make an argument with “more ammunition.”

Cole, a technical writer and teacher for civilian contractor Blackbird Technologies, will join Karr in the MDY program and hopes to progress to a foreign-service position with the State Department. Like the others, he came into SSDA with great confidence in his skills and knowledge—particularly regarding the Middle East where he often served. The classes, which he enjoyed immensely, served to open his mind to different points of view, however. He believes this will bring a more scholarly bearing to his teaching.

“There are some other folks out there who may not have done what you've done, but certainly have a unique perspective,” said Cole, who lives outside of Ft. Bragg.

Special Forces, known as the Green Berets, are highly specialized units operating within the U.S. Special Operations Command. The impetus to design the SSDA program came primarily from contacts within this community, who identified the need for higher education credentials and helped define the curriculum, according to SSDA Associate Program Director Alec Adams. They've since expanded SSDA to include qualified Special Operations candidates from all service branches.

At the time of the spring 2012 graduation, about 90 people were enrolled in the program. Most will take about a year and a half to two years to graduate, said Adams. Unlike other undergraduate programs at Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college, SSDA is part of the school’s online College of Graduate and Continuing Studies [CGCS].

Graduates said it was a privilege to be part of a program geared so closely to their needs.

“These things kind of come and go,” said Cole. “Are you smart enough to take advantage of them?”