CHICAGO (AP) - Firefighter Jim Little always had a reason for
not getting a college degree: work, family, money.
Then Benedictine University in Lisle and the suburban Chicago
fire department where Little works brought college to the
firehouse.
The 34-year-old father of two is one of 26 people from the
Lisle-Woodridge Fire District in a program that brings in college
instructors so workers can get business-related degrees at almost
no cost to themselves.
Local officials don't know of another program like it. Neither
does the International Association of Fire Fighters union, which
represents about 255,000 firefighters in the United States and
Canada, spokesman George Burke said.
Benedictine President William J. Carroll called Sept. 11 a
catalyst for the program but not the only reason behind it.
"These are people who have given up their chance to go to
school to protect us," he explained.
Benedictine, a Catholic liberal arts university, has established
a scholarship fund for the program, and proceeds from an event
Sunday featuring former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani will fund it.
Carroll said he hopes to open the program to other fire and
police departments one day, and he hopes other colleges might step
up to do the same.
"There's no reason why it can't be a national model," Carroll
said.
Little, a 13-year veteran of the department, said earning an
associate's degree makes him a better role model for his children,
gives him the opportunity to advance in the department and expands
his career options when he stops fighting fires.
Being able to go to college in the firehouse makes the program
just that much better.
"A lot of people have been out of school for so long," Little
said. "We're able to do it in an environment we're comfortable
with."
Fire Chief Tom Freeman contends a college education helps make
firefighters more well-rounded.
"We're raising the bar on the fire service," he said.
He was quick to point out, however, that he knows plenty of
"tremendous, high-quality firefighters with high school degrees."
"This is a business where one of the best degrees is a Ph.D. in
hard knocks," he said.
The idea for the program grew out of an offer from Carroll for a
$15,000 firefighter scholarship for the district. Carroll thought
the district might use the money to send one firefighter to school.
Instead, the department wanted to know how many instructors the
money would buy to teach college classes at the firehouse.
As part of Benedictine's program, the fire department students -
24 firefighters and two department civilians - must apply for all
available grants and scholarships, Carroll said. Students aren't
expected to apply for loans, but they must pay for their books, he
said.
Classes meet two days each week for four hours at a time at the
department's main firehouse. There also are weekly study groups.
Firefighters routinely cover shifts for one another so they can
attend class. They also study together on shifts during down time.
"The only thing we're not doing is taking their tests for
them," Freeman said.
The program has 12 associate's degree students, 10 bachelor's
degree students and four in a master's degree program that meets on
the Benedictine campus, said Terry Vavra, the department's bureau
chief of training.
Thirty-eight-year-old firefighter Jeff Pierson is a 14-year
veteran of the department enrolled in the MBA program.
He said he always planned to get an advanced degree, so he
jumped at the Benedictine program.
To Pierson, going to college parallels nicely with the fire
service, which relies on continual training.
"We are really dedicated to lifelong learning," he said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press