Providing online degree programs that fit the mobile lifestyle of military personnel for more than 40 years qualifies Saint Leo to participate in the Department of Defense's first virtual college fair.

Think college fair and what comes to mind?

A crowded convention center exhibit hall? Throngs of parents and teenagers shuffling shoulder-to-shoulder up and down rows of booths? Cheerful admissions representatives answering questions as participants patiently wait in long lines.

Think again. And this time, bag the travel, crowds and long lines.

Thanks to living in the digital age, virtual college fairs are growing in popularity, giving prospective college students opportunities to learn about schools and degree programs from the comfort of their own homes.

And who could benefit more from the flexibility and convenience of a virtual college fair than active military servicemembers deployed around the globe?

Reaching out to service members

To coincide with November's American Education Week, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Voluntary Education Program offered a one-day, virtual education fair. The fair was available to servicemembers in all branches of the armed forces and their families.

Because of its long history of meeting the educational needs of active-duty servicemembers and veterans, Saint Leo was among the limited number of universities invited to participate.

"Saint Leo has a strong commitment to serving those who serve our nation," said Kristina Phipps, Saint Leo associate director of graduate admissions. "I believe that history and the impeccable service we provide our students earned us an invite to participate in this first-time event."

Saint Leo has been providing college courses and degree programs to the military since 1973 – before many U.S. colleges and universities recognized active military, veterans and their families as an important student community.

"It was a great opportunity for Saint Leo to partner with the DoD," said Phipps. "Being chosen to participate was quite an honor."

Proud history of commitment to military

According to Taheesha Quarells, military evaluations program manager for the Defense Activity for Non Traditional Education Support (DANTES), the idea for the online education fair developed from the desire to provide servicemembers more information from officially approved sources and DoD-approved schools.

Eighty-three percent of military students who use tuition assistance now go to school online, says Quarells. The virtual fair allowed troops and their families, regardless of geographic location, to connect with schools that have a history of providing both online and face-to-face education to military members and quickly receive answers to all of questions.

Only colleges and universities such as Saint Leo – institutions that are members of the Servicemembers Opportunity College (SOC) Degree Network System (DNS) – participated in the DoD virtual education fair. SOC DNS schools make it easier for mobile servicemembers and their families to complete college degrees without losing credit because of frequent changes in duty station.

Providing servicemembers with real-time answers

According to Phipps, each of the 43 institutions selected to participate in the virtual education fair created its own unique branded page within its virtual booth.

"Event participants 'visited' each booth to learn more about each school. We provided information on our online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and our graduate certificate programs, funding options, and most importantly, military benefits. We also offered a live chat function."

Larry Clark, an enrollment counselor in Saint Leo's Center for Online Learning, answered questions regarding undergraduate programs. Graduate Enrollment Counselors Nathanya Bastian and Chimere Sidney worked with candidates interested in graduate programs.

"The fair gave prospective students a specific date and time to explore educational options, and we fielded a lot of great questions about both our graduate and undergraduate programs," said Clark. "Overall, it went really well."

The most common questions focused on the types of degree programs offered online and tuition. Clark chatted with students regarding time of completion, transfer credits and classroom structure.

According to Bastian, most prospective students came to the fair prepared. They had already researched universities and programs and were seeking clarification on accreditation and length of online terms, confirmation that their military benefits were applicable, and insight into Saint Leo's Catholic Benedictine heritage and core values.

Fair demonstrates convenience, flexibility of online learning

Bastian believes that technology that is standard now on smartphones, laptops and tablets not only made participating in the education fair convenient for military servicemembers and their families; it also demonstrated how feasible it is even for busy adults with careers and families to earn a college degree.

"The whole time they were accessing our website, viewing short videos, and interacting with us on the message board, they were getting a snapshot of just how easily accessible university courses are," says Bastian.

"Be it before the work shift, on a lunch break, and even as the kids are doing their homework, with Internet service, computers and mobile devices, learning – studying, asking questions and getting answers – can happen anywhere."

Image credit: Timothy R. Nichols on