Afghanistan Lt. Col. Skypes Into Classroom to Earn PhD

PHOTO: Lt. Col. Joe Ricciardi skypes into a Illinois classroom to earn his PhDPlayCourtesy of Benedictine University
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Lt. Col. Joe Ricciardi has served three tours in the Middle East, is a father of two and is responsible for commanding more than 1,000 U.S. troops in his battalion working to clear Afghan terrain of roadside bombs, all while Skyping into a Illinois classroom during the early morning hours to earn his PhD.

In April, Ricciardi, currently stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, began pursuing a degree from Benedictine University in Values-Driven Leadership, a three-year program that focuses on instructing senior executives how to become environmentally and socially responsible leaders.

In between commanding the 863rd Engineer Battalion, a unit of 1,000 soldiers responsible for identifying and removing roadside bombs and other IEDs, Ricciardi finds time in the early hours to Skype into his professors' lectures.

For one weekend a month, Ricciardi devotes nights to sitting in his room in Kandahar behind a computer and Skyping into a classroom in Lisle, Illinois where 24 other students are gathered. On those Fridays, Ricciardi logs on from midnight to 4 a.m. his time, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

"It's a significant time commitment," Ricciardi told "But it's not the classroom time, that's the easiest part. There's a lot of reading, so any free time that I had to relax, I fill up with reading."

The husband and father from Valparaiso, Ind. said he's found himself reading in some unconventional places.

"Any airplane or helicopter ride, I'm reading. There's a lot of waiting around, so I'm reading all over the country of Afghanistan. I'm pulling out my book. I've been in combat vehicles out in the middle of the battlefield, we'll stop for one reason or another, and someone will ask 'what are you doing?' I'll just say 'I'm just going to be reading,'" said Ricciardi.

To accommodate the lieutenant colonel's overseas pursuit, professors have set up a laptop computer on a desk in the classroom where a camera allows Ricciardi to see his instructor and ask questions throughout the lecture like other students.

"He's an outstanding student, from what other classmates and professors have stated," said university spokesman Elliott Peppers, adding that although the program is on-site only, the university made an exception for Ricciardi.

The director of the PhD/DBA Program in Values-Driven Leadership, Jim Ludema, said that he wanted to make that exception.

"It's a very relationship intensive program. We stress that everybody be face to face in the classroom. In Joe's case, we made an exception because he is serving our country in Afghanistan and he really wants to get his PhD. He really is a committed learner and we wanted to make this possible for him," said Ludema.

"I think it's worked great. If there were a bunch of different people in a bunch of different locations, that would be more difficult... But Joe has been great about staying engaged and part of the conversation. He asks questions and makes comments from time to time but doesn't overdo it. It's just been seamless," he said.

Ricciardi said students and professors in the class have been supportive, sending him cookies and university t-shirts.

"We've done some small group activities where we broke up the class. They put me on a chair. I've been carried around the school from room to room. I feel like I'm in a wheelchair. It's just been really neat," he said.

The decision to work toward a PhD came after a friend also serving overseas referred him to the program. After receiving a master's six years ago, he said it was the right time to pursue a PhD.

This is Ricciardi's third tour in the Middle East, having served in Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2005. He has been stationed at his current location in Kandahar for 10 months and is scheduled to return home at the end of August.

Being a father away from his wife and children, who are 11 and 9, has been difficult, but Ricciardi tries to email daily and talk or Skype once a week. He said pursuing a doctorate has been a nice distraction.

"The school part has been a good outlet for me to focus. It's a relatively stressful job because what we do is a little bit dangerous. I escape into the reading," he said, adding that the leadership skills he's learning in the classroom help him perform better on a daily basis in Afghanistan.