Army major earns USC Annenberg master’s degree online – from Afghanistan

Mike Nicholson in his office at the start of the spring semester 2012 in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Courtesy of Mike Nicholson
When 39-year-old Army Maj. Mike Nicholson applied for admission to USC Annenberg’s online Master of Communication Management program, he knew he might soon receive orders to deploy.

But the way Nicholson saw it, there would always be one reason or another to put off getting his graduate degree. Why let orders to report to Afghanistan get in the way?

On May 17, Nicholson will be one of 47 students who will have earned MCM degrees online. It will be the first-ever commencement ceremony for a master’s degree delivered online from USC Annenberg (read more here). Other grads completed their coursework from their homes in places such as Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Washington D.C., Georgia, Virginia and Alabama, as well as California.

Nicholson, a native of Southern California, is world-traveled after 16 years as an active-duty Army officer, and he’s used to moving house and home for work. When he started the master’s program, he was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas while completing a program at the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. Four months later, he was on his way to work at NATOs strategic headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he spent the next year – and three semesters.

He’s now back home at Fort Leavenworth with his wife, Emily, his 8-year-old daughter, Allie, and his 6-year-old son, Noah.

As a public affairs officer for the Army, Nicholson’s workdays in Kabul began at 7 a.m. and lasted until 8 or 9 p.m. After that, he “hit the books,” so to speak. He worked every day. He slept four to five hours a night during most of the12-month deployment.

“I tried to stay in a routine,” said Nicholson.” As long as I could stay in a routine, I could keep it straight.”

He usually had Friday mornings off, and he’d use that time to catch up. Nicholson said he discovered the structure and rigor of a military career served him well as he pushed himself to meet the demands of working a full-time deployment while simultaneously earning a master’s degree.

“There was no room for procrastination whatsoever,” said Nicholson. “It was an extremely busy year, and I appreciated the flexibility of the program and how it was delivered.”

His classmates and professors stayed flexible as he traveled beyond Afghanistan for work – to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, to Turkey for a strategic communication conference and to Germany to train incoming military and civilian staff. But the onus was on him to work ahead of schedule and stay accountable in the group projects that are a focus of the program.

Part of Nicholson’s job in Kabul was crisis communication. Early in his deployment, news broke of the burning of Korans at Bagram Air Base in Kabul. Citizen protests escalated into deadly riots that drew international attention.

He told his colleagues, “Turn on the news, and if you see stuff going on, you’ll know I’m busy.” But he’d also shoot them an email letting them know he was tied up, and he’d check back in as soon as he could.

“I can’t even imagine the obstacles he had to overcome to make sure things were getting turned in on time,” said classmate and fellow graduate Jennifer Davies, a 27-year-old corporate communications officer for Nevada’s statewide energy utility. “We talked about having to go to work all day – and who knows what he was having to do all day and still was getting it all done.”

Others in the program appreciated Nicholson’s unique take on lessons and projects, Davies said.

“I think that military perspective was enlightening, and he’d had a lot of leadership roles and knew what worked and what didn’t,” she said. “He offered a lot of really great and candid feedback because he’d been in those situations, both as a leader and as the person being told what to do. He offered a really rounded perspective for us.”

In some ways, taking on the MCM program while working on the other side of the world made sense, Nicholson said. “When you deploy down there, all you have to do is work. I wasn’t kicking in doors, but it was heavy-thinking type of work. I did need a break and would switch to schoolwork,” he said.

And that was where he discovered a rich symbiosis between his job and his studies.

Nicholson’s focus in public affairs is on strategic communication planning, which gelled perfectly with the coursework of the MCM degree.

“I work in a field that directly applies to what I was studying,” he said. “It contributed to the work I was doing on a daily basis, so both fed into each other. I brought ideas from what I was learning and immediately used them in my day-to-day environment.”

Gaining that rounded perspective – considering communication problems from all angles by moving back and forth between school and work – paid off.

Nicholson says he still taps into his academic experience, and the perspective he gained from his diverse classmates, almost daily.

“There are more areas you’re able to make connections with, both from an academic and a practitioner sense. In the program, we were all working in the field – some were in marketing firms, public relations firms – everyone was in the communication field. It gave us all better breadth.”

He added that he wasn’t the only one juggling many hours of work with the rigorous MCM program.

“I saw the same discipline in people who were working in other fields,” he said. “Most people had full-time jobs, families and these classes going on, so you learn pretty quickly how to manage your time. Because we all have a lot to balance.”

Related: First students to earn a degree online from USC Annenberg to graduate in commencement ceremony