Counter intelligence specialist Olan Tiangco completes online criminal justice degree while working in Afghanistan amid dangerous and harsh conditions.

Earning a degree is never easy. But for Saint Leo University commencement speaker Olan Tiangco, 45, the road to graduation was paved with formidable challenges.

Enemy gunfire. Spotty Internet connections. Brutal weather. 18-hour shifts.

Tiangco, a 24-year Army veteran, was just beginning the transition to civilian life and getting started with his online criminal justice degree program at Saint Leo University in 2013 when he accepted a position in Afghanistan as a counter intelligence screener with a national security and defense company. Determined not to let the challenges of his assignment get in the way of his education, Tiangco pressed on.

"None of it was easy. Not one moment," says the criminal justice major who was selected to speak at the 2014 Center for Online Learning commencement ceremony at University Campus.

A lifetime overcoming challenges

Challenges are nothing new for Tiangco.

Abused as a child and homeless by the age of 16, he joined the Army to get off the streets and get an education.

But shift work in the states and periodic rotations in Hohenfels, Germany for combat training made it nearly impossible for the young recruit to attend classes regularly.  It was the 90's, and online learning hadn't quite caught on. 

So Tiangco set aside his dream of a college education – but not forever.

Twenty-one years later, when he arrived at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, the then 41-year-old enrolled in a local community college, earning his associate's degree online as he completed tours of duty in Iraq and honed his military intelligence skills.

Still, he wasn't finished learning.

When his wife, Judith, told him about Saint Leo University's Center for Online Learning, Tiangco set his sights on a bachelor's degree in criminal justice specializing in homeland security. The Catholic liberal arts university with a long-standing reputation for online education excellence offered the perfect program to continue his studies.

"My wife took on the task of selecting a university that carried the tenets of Catholicism and didn't fall into the category of 'degree mill,' he says. "The convenience of online distance learning, the small student-to-faculty ratio and strong core values were quite attractive. Saint Leo's appreciation and devotion to see those in the ranks of the military excel were definitely laudable."

Learning to expect anything

Even so, Tiango's experience was fraught with challenges, beginning with his own personal struggle with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

"I had to spend more time with my books than the average student might – sometimes reading the same page three to five times," he says, adding that his job overseas precluded him from continuing his ADHD medication.

Poor Internet connectivity and harsh weather posed challenges as well.

"I have been to many places where the generators would burn out from overuse. I have been to places where the snow piled so very high that power would go out," he says.

Then there was the workday – at times as many as 18 hours – and enemy fire.

"Enemy fire complicated things. Whenever we took incoming fire, everything stopped and I had to switch hats and perform another function of my duties."

Online studies provide normalcy amid chaos

Oddly enough, it was Tiangco's online experience that became his link to the real world.

"While engaged in my discussion questions and receiving responses, I really could forget that I was in Iraq or Afghanistan," he says. "The blackboard allowed me to be normal by proxy."

And his instructors provided the support and encouragement he needed.

"I recall one occasion where I was being flown to three other sites for mission-specific events. I brought this to the attention of my instructors who were more than accommodating," he says.

"Most of my teachers seemed to know that I do well with positive reinforcement. All of them made me think a lot; you did not get away with just answering questions at this university…absolutely not! Your answer could have been quite correct, but they would poke at your answers and make you support them. They might even rebut your input to see how you would defend your points. This, above all, I appreciated.

"This is real-world training."

Tiangco credits Saint Leo University with awakening his mind and discovering a penchant for law.

"At Saint Leo I was exposed to case briefs and I realized that I understood a preponderance of the legalese. I could argue points of cases and cite them as casually as I could Army regulations."

And while he isn't certain, at age 45, that he's ready to pursue a degree in law, Tiangco does plan to continue his education.

"My wife and I are currently deciding which master's program best suits me as I look to continue in my current profession."

But on May 2, as he addressed the diverse crowd of graduates, recounting a life filled with challenges, Tiangco was solely focused on his message of empowerment, encouragement and accomplishment:

"Don't be happy being a candle, be a fire. And by all you hold sacrosanct, burn long and burn well. Light the world!"

Do you know a Saint Leo student or grad with an inspiring story? Please let us know!

Image Credits: Renee Gerstein, University Communications

Zulie Mendoza, Student Services

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