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James Etter: Setting Up the Ukrainian Refugee Online Academy

By Dr. Jaclyn Maria Fowler
Department Chair, English and Literature

A few weeks ago, I was in the University’s content marketing team meeting, where we commonly discuss ideas for upcoming blog articles and podcasts. Since I had been writing a series of articles about Ukraine, I pitched another story or two about the Russian-provoked war from the viewpoint of my students at Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU).

“Someone should talk to James Etter,” a speaker in the meeting said. It happened so quickly that I didn’t have the time to identify the unknown speaker, and I wasn’t sure if the comment was meant for me or for the university’s content marketing team.

“He’s building a free high school program for Ukrainians,” the speaker added. This time, I saw Dr. Wally Boston’s tile light up, so I knew he was my unknown speaker.

Until a few years ago, Dr. Boston was the longtime president and CEO of American Public University System. So when Wally speaks, it behooves people to listen because he knows some things.

“I’d be happy to interview him,” I said. “Would you make the introductions?” one of the Content team leaders asked Wally.

A few days later, I received the email introduction from Wally Boston to Dr. James P. Etter, our founder.

It wasn’t until my first meeting with James Etter, however, that I realized I didn’t have the full story on James Etter. I knew our Creativity and Innovation Award was named after him, and I knew from the meeting that he was running a virtual high school – Citizens High School. But it wasn’t until I asked my first question of James Etter that I realized there was something more, something big.

“So, how did you get involved with Ukraine?” I asked.

“I actually just…ah…you know my background and history,” he said. I didn’t. He added, “I mean AMU, and all that.”

What I learned is that James P. Etter is the founder of American Military University, which was later joined by American Public University in 2002. The reason he’s the namesake of an award that recognizes creativity and innovation is because, after retiring as an officer from the Marine Corps, he built an asynchronous learning environment in 1991 before most people understood what that meant.

Dr. Etter offered the power of learning to military personnel all over the world, including those on the front lines. Etter had the vision to free learning from its physical space, so that education went to consumers rather than requiring consumers to go to a physical building on a school campus.

Founding the Ukrainian Refugee Online Academy

And now Dr. Etter is at it again. In 2017, he saw an opportunity and went for it, purchasing a private online high school that was going out of business.

In 2022, the Ukrainian crisis heated up and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children were uprooted from their homes and their schools. As a former Marine officer is wont to do, Etter changed directions to respond to the situation on the ground. As part of Citizens High School, he created the Ukrainian Refugee Online Academy.

Working in partnership with the Ukrainian Ministry of Education, Ukrainian Refugee Online Academy is an educational bridge program for Ukrainian refugee students. It also serves students who are settled temporarily outside of Ukraine or awaiting sponsorship to emigrate to the United States.

These days, Dr. Etter is focused on the resettlement option of the Ukrainian Refugee Online Academy. He is convinced that he can streamline the academic process for Ukrainian students who are now entering the U.S. without the benefit of school records. Many records, of course, have been lost as Russians indiscriminately bomb civilian areas, including kindergarten facilities and schools.

As Dr. Etter explains, “Every Ukrainian high school student – eighth grade and above – comes into the United States [and] needs to be funneled through Citizens High School. The reason is because they’re coming out with no school records. Most of them, at least. So, we have software that we’re converting right now that can give an unofficial transcript.”

Related link: Continued Uncertainty in Ukraine: A Former Student’s Account

Meeting the Needs of Ukrainian Students and Teachers

According to the school’s marketing material, Ukrainian Refugee Online Academy “can act as a simple, single academic point of entry for all Ukrainian high school students entering the U.S.” This free educational program not only continues the learning process for students who have been forced from their homes, but it also does the hard work of assessing their abilities and producing unofficial transcripts.

One of the first steps in the entry process to American education for Ukrainian refugees is a course that will help them orient to the U.S. “It’s a U.S. democracy course,” Dr. Etter says.

Related link: The Destruction of ‘Normal’ and How Ukranians Cope in Lviv

Academy students will also have the option of taking an English as a Second Language (ESL) course. For those students who do not speak English, Dr. Etter has hired Ukrainian teachers who are out of work due to the war.

Dr. Etter recognizes the hardships that potential Ukrainian refugee students might have in taking classes. He recognizes these students are coming from traumatic experiences within Ukraine.

“What am I going to do in the next three months to survive?” Dr. Etter says, mimicking a potential Ukrainian student. “I’ve lost my mom. I’ve lost my dad. Or my mom and dad are still back there, you know?”

As you might have guessed from a guy who has a creativity and innovation award named after him, Dr. Etter has a plan. Although the courses taught at Ukrainian Refugee Online Academy are primarily asynchronous, he wants to incorporate more short, live interactions between students and teachers.

Citizens High School already uses these comprehension checks – called “Stop and Discuss” – to keep students engaged. He’s also looking for volunteer faculty members to interact with the students.

Flexibility Is Key in Online Education

In Dr. Etter’s program, flexibility is the key. As he says, students “can finish a course in a month. You can do your courses from one month to four months. You could do two at a time, three at a time …You can do problem-based learning. You can do activity-based learning. You can do lecture-based learning. You could do anything you want.”

In other words, Dr. Etter builds educational programs to fit learners, so learners do not have to adapt to their programs. It is the innovative model with which he started the University, but if you think that Etter is fully satisfied with what he’s accomplished so far, you’d be wrong. He’s already looking for the next big thing in education.

Dr. Etter “If education 1.0 is a resident-based program and 2.0 is what we’re doing now with this learning and some hybrid, what will 3.0 look like? I’m focused on that. I’m trying to bring out a new learning architecture.”

And that is the creative, innovative go-getter that is Dr. James P. Etter.

Jaclyn Maria Fowler is an adventurer, a lover of culture and language, a traveler, and a writer. To pay for her obsessions, she works as Chair of the English Department and is a full professor at the University. Dr. Fowler earned a Doctorate in Education from Penn State and an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She is the author of the novel "It is Myself that I Remake" and of the creative nonfiction book "No One Radiates Love Alone."

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