NATCHITOCHES, La., Dec. 17 -- A group of practicing emergency medical services (EMS) professionals is taking advantage of law enforcement tuition exemption to complete their bachelor's degrees through Northwestern State University's unified public safety administration program. The non-traditional students, who are EMS instructors in Lafayette, are seeking academic credentials after years of experience in the field and are helping recruit other students for Northwestern State's UPSA program.
"It started out as a bucket list item, but a few of us are going on to get our master's degrees so we can teach on-line. It's actually now a goal to help supplement our retirement," said Gifford Saravia of New Iberia, who is director of the National EMS Academy and chief investigator for the Iberia Parish coroner's office. "Participants in the class range in age from their late 30s to their early 50s. All are EMS instructors who work full-time, plus most have other jobs."
The law enforcement and public safety officer tuition exemption provides a fee exemption for law enforcement and public safety professionals to pursue an undergraduate degree. In addition to UPSA, participants may pursue degrees in criminal justice, homeland security, general studies, liberal arts or business administration. Graduate students may pursue a Master of Arts in adult education with a concentration in homeland security.
"They all came to us with an associate degree and will graduate with bachelor's degrees in unified public safety administration," said class instructor Jack Atherton, UPSA program administrator and assistant professor of criminal justice at Northwestern State. "Informally, they have formed a cohort and all are exemplary students who are training EMS professionals for the state. Besides being great students, they are bringing their students into our university program. They are doing a superior job."
The National EMS Academy, where the UPSA students are employed as instructors, is a collaborative effort between Acadian Ambulance Service and South Louisiana Community College in which credit for paramedic courses from the Academy can be applied to an associate degree from SLCC. Northwestern State developed a 2+2 agreement with SLCC in which students with an associate degree can enroll at Northwestern State at the junior level to pursue their bachelor's degrees. Northwestern State also accepts the national EMS credential towards academic credit.
"They are an interesting group. They have a little competition on grades," Atherton said. "This is how distance learning should work. They can apply their professional knowledge and expertise to their coursework."
"We compete for the Champ Belt, a prize passed around to the students with the highest scores," Saravia said. "It keeps you motivated when you compare who made what grade."
The students are now working on their capstone research projects, which will be presented during the University of Louisiana System Academic Summit in April. The service-learning projects are directed to enrich the community through the fulfillment of curriculum objectives in the students' course of study. Saravia's project is the implementation of a mass fatality protocol plan for Iberia Parish. Parish officials and emergency responders in Region 4 currently have informal agreements regarding mass fatality situations, but the plan will establish documented policy in the event of a crisis.
"This is not just a theoretical student exercise," Saravia said. "The project will impact mass fatality response in Region 4."
"Our UPSA students' capstone project is exemplary," said Steven Gruesbeck, Northwestern State's director of Service-Learning. "It demonstrates the real-life, practical value of service-learning to our state and to our on-line students as they prepare for the world of work."
Utilizing on-line courses to complete their degrees has not only been convenient for the working professionals, but also enlightening for those who may become on-line instructors themselves.