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Selfridge Airmen double CCAF degree awards

Staff Sgt. Kallie Czenkus, an intelligence analyst with the 171st Air Refueling Squadron, prepares for an evening class a Northwood University’s satellite campus at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Czenkus is completing her requirements to earn an associate degree with the Community College of the Air Force. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Staff Sgt. Kallie Czenkus, an intelligence analyst with the 171st Air Refueling Squadron, prepares for an evening class a Northwood University’s satellite campus at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Czenkus is completing her requirements to earn an associate degree with the Community College of the Air Force. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

SELFRIDGE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mich. -- It is 6 p.m. on a Tuesday night and Staff Sgt. Kallie Czenkus is sitting in a classroom in the 127th Wing Medical Readiness Building. She's got a water bottle, a lap top, a note book and a big, thick text book on financial management. In another couple of months, she's also have a Community College of the Air Force associate degree.

Once she picks up her diploma at the annual CCAF graduation ceremony in June, she and her fellow 2017 graduates will nudge the 127th Wing's percentage of CCAF degree holders from 19.9 percent to more than 20 percent. It is a milestone number that is only expected to continue to increase.

For years, most of the CCAF graduation ceremonies for enlisted members of the 127th Wing at Selfridge saw about two dozen Airmen complete the requirements for the degree. In Fiscal Year 2016, that number about doubled and jumped to 49 Airmen. It is likely that 2017 will see a similar number of graduates.

The increase is largely driven by a new Air National Guard requirement that mandates a CCAF degree in hand for promotion to service's the top two enlisted ranks, senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant.

That requirement has prompted many senior enlisted members of the wing to get back in the classroom and ensure all their requirements are met, explained Tech. Sgt. Natasha Gieraltowski, who coordinates CCAF activities as a training and education specialist with the 127th Force Support Squadron.

"I think the new emphasis by the senior enlisted on the CCAF also means more junior enlisted people are thinking about the degree and are doing their own work to accomplish it earlier in their career," Gieraltowski said.

The heightened interest in the CCAF at Selfridge is being repeated at Air Force bases across the globe - about 20 percent of all the CCAF degrees awarded in the 40 years since the college was created have been earned in the past four years.

"Earning this degree is having a direct, positive impact on people's lives," said Chief Master Sgt. Andrew Hollis, the vice commandant of the CCAF at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

Hollis himself is proof of that impact. Neither his father nor grandfather completed high school - "education just wasn't seen as that important where I grew up." But as a young Airman, he took a speech class - something he wasn't particularly comfortable with at the time - and his outlook changed.

"Education changed my whole life," Hollis said. "The formal education required as part of a CCAF degree lays a foundation that really allows a person to grow and develop in ways he or she might not have been otherwise able to accomplish."

Czenkus initially joined the Michigan Air National Guard about five years ago, straight out of high school. She works as an intelligence analyst with the 171st Air Refueling Squadron. In her initial technical training, she spent about six months at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas, learning the basics of the intelligence career field. Under the CCAF system, she earned a number of college credits through that training that can be applied not only to her CCAF degree, but can also be applied toward an associate or bachelor's degree program at a civilian college or university. After her initial training, as she worked as a traditional, drill-status Guardsman - performing duty generally one weekend per month - she took a few classes at Macomb Community College. Those Macomb classes also applied to her CCAF.

Czenkus said it was Capt. Stephanie Palembas-Liess, another 171st intelligence analyst, who really encouraged her to get serious about putting all those past credits together and working toward the CCAF.

That led Czenkus to Northwood University, which operates a satellite campus at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. There, dozens of students, mostly service members and dependents from all branches of the military, take evening classes to work toward associate and bachelor's degrees.

All Air Force enlisted personnel, including those both on active duty and those in the Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard, are automatically enrolled in the CCAF. Airmen earn physical education credits in their basic military training, technical and career credits at their Air Force technical school, and management credits as they advance through the ranks and complete various stages of professional military education. Core general education classes - such as mathematics, English and history - need to be taken through an outside college or university.

At the Northwood satellite campus at Selfridge, the campus director, retired Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Jack Bronka, works closely with both the students and Gieraltowski's office to ensure that local Airmen earn the required credits for the CCAF.

"Some of our students only take one or two classes to fill in a requirement, others are here for the whole degree," Bronka said. "We sit down with each one individually, but we really keep that CCAF in focus. That's going to benefit them in their career both inside the military and beyond."

CCAF is the only institution of its kind in the U.S. military - a fully-accredited college authorized to award college degrees to enlisted personnel.

"Our accreditation is through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is the same organization that accredits the University of Georgia, just as an example," said Hollis, the CCAF vice commandant.

"So earning a CCAF degree is not an easy program, but that's the value of it," he said.

Hollis oversees a team of Airmen who ensure that the approximately 6,000 instructors and more than 100 affiliated Air Force schools that are part of the CCAF program maintain the standards set by the Southern Association. Since the CCAF was established in 1972, nearly 500,000 Airmen have earned the degree.

One of the more significant changes in the CCAF program in recent years is one that was recently announced and will take place next year: CCAF students will now have the option to substitute a second English composition class in place of the current speech class requirement. A speech class is often the last class needed for a person to earn the CCAF, said Gieraltowski at Selfridge.

In fact, that helps explain why 44 enlisted Airmen in the 127th Wing hold a bachelor's degree - considered a 4-year degree - but do not have the 2-year associate degree from the CCAF. And, Gieraltowski said, it is likely that there are actually more 127th Wing members who hold associate or bachelor's degree, but do not have a CCAF degree, as, in the past, Air National Guard Airmen were not required to report their off-duty education accomplishments.

While Hollis maintains his advocacy for a speech class, he said that the concerns from the Air National Guard - where many Airmen found themselves with bachelor's degrees but no CCAF degrees - help prompt the change in the speech requirement.

"We are still requiring classes that help a person learn how to better communicate, but now there's another option," he said.

Back in the financial management class at Selfridge, Czenkus said she's reaching a major milestone of her own.

"This is my last class for the CCAF," she said, shortly before Northwood Professor Modou Ceesay began that evening's lecture. "But I am going to keep going, keep working toward that bachelor's degree."

Czenkus said taking her classes on base also pays an additional benefit.

"I learn so much from my classmates," she said. "They bring their own experiences to the classroom and it is almost like getting two educations in one."