On the Road: Portable Professors Reflect on Their Nomadic Path

UMUC’s traveling faculty reflect on the triumphs—and trials—of being a portable professor.

Editor’s note: This article is featured in the Spring 2018 edition of Achiever, the magazine of University of Maryland University College.

For most faculty at University of Maryland University College (UMUC), preparing for class involves booting up a computer. For Gyongyi Plucer-Rosario, who teaches marine biology on Guam, it might include strapping on a face mask and flippers.

“The last field trip is the one everyone looks forward to,” said Plucer-Rosario.

“We charter a boat, and we go into the harbor. We do some depth sampling and we do some snorkeling to look at all the things we have been talking about. Then we go down south to Agat, and we visit with the dolphins and the flying fish and the turtles. We watch the dolphins show off how they dance. Even most of my Navy students have never seen anything like that.”

Plucer-Rosario has lived and taught on Guam since she arrived there decades ago to study corals at the University of Guam. She has taught for UMUC since 1984 and is now one of five full-time collegiate faculty and several adjunct faculty who teach at the Navy base on the southern end of the island and the Air Force base at the northern end.

At UMUC, her experience is unusual but hardly unique. While most UMUC students take their classes online, the U.S. Department of Defense also contracts with the university to teach courses face-to-face on military bases around the world. Every term, hundreds of faculty members continue a UMUC tradition that dates to the late 1940s, relocating as needed to bring a college education to servicemembers.

A documentary that follows UMUC’s seven-decade mission of educating military personnel stationed overseas aired in April on Maryland Public Television.

View it here.

Brian East and his wife, Kathy So, are veterans of the nomadic lifestyle. Born in Atlanta, East earned his undergraduate degree from Georgia State University and his Ph.D. from Auburn University.

He taught English as a second language in Korea from 2001 to 2003, then returned home to Atlanta to teach at Georgia Gwinnett College. While there, he met and married his wife, who was born in Korea but grew up in Georgia. The life of traveling faculty members appealed to the couple.

In the space of three years, they have taught in Korea (twice), on Okinawa (twice), and in Germany in Stuttgart, at Panzer Kaserne, and in Bavaria.

Their daughter, Evelyn Hana, now two and a half travels with them.

“She picks up and moves like it’s nothing,” said East. “She has already lived in three different countries and she has been home to visit the United States. She has spent time in eight different countries.”

So, who teaches business and government courses for UMUC, shares her daughter’s adaptability and characterizes life as a traveling faculty member as “an amazing and rewarding adventure.”

Charles Salinas, the faculty coordinator for South Korea, is equally comfortable on the road and knows his way around the peninsula. A social personality psychologist by training, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside, then went to teach at the American University in Bulgaria just after the fall of communism.

But after teaching at California State in Long Beach and following his wife to the University of Alaska, Southeast, in Juneau, the two decided to try something different and headed to Korea to teach for UMUC.

“I have come full circle in how I envisioned my career by working overseas in different countries,” Salinas said. “Korea is a wonderful place, and Seoul is an exciting city.”

The faculty experience now is different than it was in the early days of UMUC’s Europe and Asia divisions when communication and logistics often presented significant challenges. Now, modern technology offers greater flexibility even as it pushes faculty to reevaluate their classroom strategies.

“The newer technology presents fascinating avenues to reach students,” Salinas said. “When I started in education, I went into a class, I lectured, the students read the work, took exams, and wrote a paper. That was it. It seemed to work. But now that I have to tackle unique situations, I see that it didn’t work so well.”

He began to experiment with assigning basic exercises as homework and reserving the more challenging and interesting tasks for the classroom.

“Instead of one-way communication where I am talking with students and they’re writing their notes and regurgitating it later on, they’re coming [to class] with some knowledge, and we’re using that to solve problems in the classroom,” Salinas said. “For example, … we can manipulate emotions and see how that changes the sympathetic nervous system with some basic physiological measures. That makes the classroom experience much more interesting, and they are much more engaged in class, eager to [attend].”

Technology also allows faculty to serve remote sites that might otherwise remain inaccessible.

“Yesterday, I was at Osan Air Base, and I was streaming down to Kunsan Air Base, which is 170 miles away,” said Salinas. “That’s not a place I could commute to even once a week and get back. It allows us to reach those students and offer them classes that they normally would not have access to.”

With rapid technological advances in Korea and across much of Asia, fiber now connects all the military bases and internet connections are very fast, allowing faculty to put teleconferencing technology to use in the classroom.

Salinas also travels to the remote sites several times each year to meet students in person while streaming those classes back to his home site.

“Students appreciate that the instructor is taking time to visit with them,” Salinas said. “We don’t have to. We could just teach from the face-to-face classroom and stream to them. But it’s well worth the effort to make connections with students.”

Certain challenges remain, however, despite advances in technology. saber rattling by North Korea has put American troops on high alert, which means less time for classes, and some eight-week terms have been shortened to seven weeks or even six.

“That shortens the window for trying to accomplish the course goals,” Salinas said. “It would be problematic if I were just trying to deliver the information and lecture, but I am not trying to do that. I am trying to help students be self-motivated learners, to find information on their own and be able to do something with that knowledge.”

Those challenges, he said, “are part of our mission and make this job truly rewarding.”

Greg Evans—the first faculty member in UMUC’s MBA program in Europe—agrees, seeing himself as a pioneer not unlike the first faculty members sent to teach in post-war Germany some 70 years ago.

“It was a Catch-22,” Evans said. “The director of graduate programs couldn’t hire MBA faculty until we had enough students—but we couldn’t enroll enough students until we had more faculty.”

Teaching is a second career for Evans, who had worked in and around Chicago for everything from small dot-coms to Fortune 50 companies. After earning an MBA from DePaul University, he taught part-time for as many as seven universities. When UMUC won the contract to offer an MBA program in Europe five years ago, Evans became the first full-time faculty member.

Demand was high, he said, and “there were some growing pains. We had to roll out the program very deliberately. We had never done it before.”

The program was structured on UMUC’s new project-based learning model, which is typical of most MBA programs, and although the program is offered in a hybrid format, combining online and face-to-face instruction, Evans spends most weekends traveling across Europe, meeting with students on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.

“The students are fantastic,” he said. “These are veterans, spouses, contractors—truly global citizens. We are here in Europe, so they have lived and worked overseas. They understand cultural differences. They understand cultural context. They understand business because they are living it. We have some robust discussions because they bring so much to the table.”

Evans lives in Kaiserslautern, but teaching assignments regularly take him to Ramstein, Wiesbaden, Spangdahlem, Stuttgart, Grafenwoehr, and Vilsek in Germany; to Royal Air Force bases in the United Kingdom; to U.S. bases in Italy; and downrange in Bahrain. Typically, he teaches two six-credit classes each term—then turns around and does it again for another 11 weeks.

“The goal is to have different instructors for all the MBA classes, to give the students different business perspectives,” he said.

And he is no longer the lone faculty member in the program. Now, nine full-time and several adjunct faculty support the growing program.

“It’s a dream job,” Evans said. “I love the students, I love the support I get from headquarters. My colleagues are some of the best and brightest. Some are publishing in leading academic journals, [and] we have retired CEOs sharing their experience. This is the best gig on the planet.”

The Spring 2018 edition of Achiever Magazine is available here.