Air Force Captain Kenneth Burgi
Air Force Captain Kenneth Burgi

Pilot Program

by Marcia Goodrich

Earning an MS from Afghanistan . . . and points beyond

Some Michigan Tech students choose online learning to avoid scheduling conflicts or to dodge the dreaded eight o'clock roll call. Air Force Captain Kenneth Burgi is earning a degree online for another reason. It's tough getting to class when you are copiloting 250 tons of aircraft, people, and cargo all over the world.

Dennis Wiitanen, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and one of Burgi's teachers, never expected to be teaching a warrior on active duty. "It's amazing," he said, "and a little hard for me to get used to."

Burgi is earning an MS in Electrical Engineering with an emphasis on power systems. His typical online-learning classmate is an industry employee looking to develop skills in a high-demand field. Burgi, who got his BS in Electrical Engineering from Tech in 2002, before joining the military, has a different goal. "I hope to get into Air Force Test Pilot School, one of the most competitive programs in the Air Force," he said. "A master's in electrical or aeronautical engineering is highly desirable."

Burgi couldn't be earning that master's without the flexibility offered by online learning. In fall 2008, he was flying fourteen-hour missions in a C-17 Globemaster III, transporting troops and supplies into Afghanistan.

In January, he returned to Charleston Air Force Base, in South Carolina. It's still too far to commute, so Burgi remained an online learner while he flew missions to destinations as disparate as the Middle East and the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. During spring semester, his job and two electrical engineering classes kept him busy up to eighteen hours a day.

Figure in eating and sleeping, and there wasn't much time left over. "It was really hard," he admits. "I got a lot of gray hair last semester completing two classes at once. It was awesome to finally be done." Online learning, with all its opportunities, has its challenges. Burgi has had no peers to study with, and he can't drop in on his professors during office hours. "It can be hard to ask an engineering question via email, but my professors have done an impressive job replying," Burgi said.

Nevertheless, says Wiitanen, "Ken's a great student. He has lots of good insights. He was struggling with one problem, and before I could even get back to him he got back to me with a solution I hadn't even thought of. I asked him if I could use it next year."

An online master's program can be a superb option for those who have already launched their careers, Wiitanen says, but it's not for everyone. No matter where you study, no matter how glitzy the technology, the old rules still apply. "The people who are highly motivated and do the work succeed," said Wiitanen. "Those that don't watch the videos and don't bother doing the homework, don't."

Online learning could land Burgi that coveted slot in test-pilot school. In retrospect, he suggests that undergraduates pursue advanced degrees the old-fashioned way.

"If you know you'll need a master's degree, stay at Michigan Tech for an extra year or two and get it," he advises. "You will never have less responsibility than you do right now."

However, not all 21-year-olds have drawn a bead on their dream job. For many, including Burgi, learning from a distance offers a second chance to get it right.