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How First Responders Should Prepare for an Unintended School Absence

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By Craig Gilman, faculty member with American Military University

Sometimes…life happens. It doesn’t matter how well or how far in advance you plan, some things simply cannot be anticipated. While this is true for anyone, it is especially true for those in the military, law enforcement, fire service and other public safety fields. Whether you have finally signed up for that first class or are only a couple of classes away from graduation, life simply does not care. However, if you take the right approach with your professors, your work obligations shouldn’t interfere with your academic success.

Communicate with Your Professor and Classmates
books and educationWhile it is recommended that all students introduce themselves to their professor with a short, personal email, if you are in the armed forces or are a first responder you should mention it to your professor. Should you have to contact your professor at a later date to ask for an extension on an assignment because of an unexpected absence from class, it is good that your service status has already been established.

Also, let your fellow students know in your introductory post. Look out for other students in a similar field and connect with them. You never know if they might be able to help, should you have to experience an absence from class. By the way, it’s also a good idea to let your command know you’re taking courses.

Be Proactive
Look and plan ahead. While it’s important for all students to avoid procrastination and stay a step ahead, for students who might suddenly face an unplanned absence, being ahead in the readings and assignments provides a buffer. It isn’t necessary and often isn’t possible to work weeks ahead, but by front-loading your studies as much as possible, you’re setting yourself up to survive a couple of days’ unanticipated absence.

Ask for an Assignment Extension
If, despite your best efforts, you find that you won’t be able to turn in an assignment on time, contact your professor immediately. Avoid sounding like you’re making excuses. Simply and concisely explain the reason for your absence, and ask to be able to submit your assignment after the original deadline. If you can propose a date, do so, as it will help to ease the professor’s mind and demonstrate your willingness to do the work.

State that you understand that there might be a deduction for tardiness and will accept the professor’s decision. Most professors will waive a late penalty or minimize it, allowing you to earn sufficient points for the work you do and not significantly harm your course grade. The fact that you already indicated your military status will help. While in some instances it might be unavoidable, it is always best to contact the professor before the assignment deadline, not after.

Ask for a Course Extension
If circumstances prevent you from completing all required coursework before the end of the course, or if your absence is going to be for an extended period of time, you should consider a course extension. Many schools will allow for extensions, but it is up to the student to initiate the process.

American Military University (AMU), for example, allows all students to request a 30-day extension, provided they were making satisfactory progress prior to the extension request. This normally suffices for absences of less than a month. AMU also allows for extensions for military deployments and other special circumstances for periods in excess of 30 days.

Although extending a course is preferable to withdrawing, there are consequences associated with an extension, especially if you’re receiving financial aid or tuition assistance. It’s always good to refer to your student handbook for more information on this subject.

Do Not Allow a Grade of ‘F’
Withdrawing from or dropping a course is always preferable to failing a course, since a withdrawal or drop does not impact your grade-point average. There are deadlines for drops and withdrawals, so refer to your student handbook.

At AMU, students who drop in the first week incur no financial obligations for tuition. After the first week, if you’re receiving student aid or tuition assistance (TA), there may be a requirement to repay. Ask your academic advisor to assist you with these details. If you’re receiving TA, be sure to inform your Education Services Officer for instructions on how to deal with the situation.

Program Hold
Unfortunately, sometimes unintended absences end up being for longer periods of time, such as when a unit suddenly deploys abroad into an unpredictable area of operation. In such cases, make every attempt to put your degree plan on “program hold” with the university. At AMU, doing so will avoid being withdrawn from the university for inactivity. Once you return from deployment, your student status will have been preserved, and you can continue toward your educational goals.

Life does happen, but if you know what steps to take when it does, the inconveniences can be minimized. Schools that are friendly to the military and other working adult students have policies in place designed to assist and empower their students to conquer life’s obstacles and complete their educational goals. Your first consideration is to be sure you’re at a school that understands and supports military and adult students.

About the Author: Craig Gilman has an M.A. in International Studies and M.S. in Education, both from Old Dominion University. Craig is currently an online faculty member and Senior Manager of Military Outreach Operations with American Military University. He is a veteran who served for five years in the Marine Corps. Prior to joining APUS, he taught secondary social studies as a public school teacher in Virginia, at Korea International School in Seoul, Korea, and English in the public middle school system in Tokyo, Japan. Craig often presents on the attributes of online education at local, state, and national conferences.

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