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Studying Optics and C++ from Afghanistan

An Army military intelligence officer battles rocket fire, connectivity issues and distance to earn his M.S. in electrical engineering.

May 25, 2010 —

Captain Matt Smith spent parts of the last five semesters hunkered down in forward operating bases in Kuwait and Afghanistan.

But the Army intelligence officer didn’t let that geographical challenge — and the fact that he had to wear a weapon, even during exams — stop him from graduating this spring from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering with a master’s degree in electrical engineering.

Captain Matt Smith at commencement ceremonies on May 14, 2010, standing as he was recognized by Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos.
Smith, 25, attended EE classes, chatted with professors and took exams 100% online through the Viterbi School’s Distance Education Network (DEN).

“Going to graduation was the first time I’d stepped on campus,” says Smith of the May 14 commencement ceremonies. “What a great place."

Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos gave special recognition to Smith during his commencement address. “Matt has accomplished more than most students have by the quarter-century age mark, and we’re proud to welcome him to the Trojan family,” Yortsos said later.

Several years ago, after examining a variety of graduate programs, Smith decided to apply for his degree because of the Viterbi school's reputation and the flexibility offered by the DEN program.

He had earned his bachelor’s degree in physics (with a minor in biomedical engineering) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he enrolled in the Army ROTC program.

Following graduation from MIT, he attended schooling at Ft. Huachuca in Arizona and was then stationed at Ft. Gordon in Georgia with the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade. But halfway through his four-year service to the Army, Smith decided he wanted to pursue advanced studies.

So he began investigating options that would allow him to continue his graduate education wherever he was stationed.

Captain Matt Smith on Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

At first, Smith says, he was skeptical that an online degree would have “the same credibility” as earning a master’s on an elite university campus. Then he discovered USC’s DEN program.

“It changed my perspective of online degrees to see an engineering school of USC’s caliber offer a distance education program,” says Smith. “It was definitely a perfect fit.”

The Army’s tuition assistance program was helpful also, as it offered subsidies to help Smith pursue his education while serving both stateside and deployed.

But the journey was not always easy. During his very first semester, he was sent to Kuwait during final exams. “Thankfully Professor Jenkins, my EE 401 instructor, and the DEN office were very accommodating,” he says. “They allowed me to delay my finals until after I got back.”

Keith Jenkins, a professor of electrical engineering, says it was easy to forget that Smith was a world away at the time. “He would turn in his homework assignments on time, take the exams, and turn in term projects on the same day as the on-campus students,” says Jenkins.

“But it was interesting to meet him for the first time at commencement — I knew his name and his work, but had no idea what he looked like or was like in person. He was unassuming and personable, and a joy to speak with. “

During parts of his last two semesters, Smith was deployed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. He would spend 12-hour days, seven days a week, providing military intelligence support for strategic decision-makers and combat units on the ground.

Then he’d throw down dinner and head back to the spare living quarters he called his “hut,” and attend courses online, participate in class discussions, and study well past midnight most evenings.

Smith's "hut" on Bagram Airfield, and the Dell computer where he watched all lectures.
“Sometimes the base would take rocket fire and my first thought would be ‘Man, this will make it harder to get back to my room and finish my assignment,’” says Smith.

Connectivity in the huts was usually not a problem. Calling a professor from a live phone line was, at times. For example, he recalls taking EE 529: Optics with Professor Armand R. Tanguay, Jr., of Electrical Engineering-Electrophysics.

“For my project presentation, we had to reroute a government line through Fort Bragg to call into USC, while the class viewed slides I'd prepared,” says Smith.

Tanguay remarks that Smith's presentation was one of the best of the semester. "Can you imagine the dedication required of a graduate student to make these unusual arrangements and then actually present his final term project from a military base in Afghanistan?" says Tanguay.

“He exemplifies all of the key qualities that we strive for in our graduates: intelligence, conceptual understanding, professionalism, and perseverance, along with a "can-do" attitude."

One advantage of being deployed? Smith says he had none of the distractions — such as a girlfriend or nights out with friends — that DEN students in the United States might contend with.

Smith in front of an F-16 on Bagram Airfield.

“You get back from work on the base and you have no flat screen TV and no sports bars to go watch the games, it’s just you and your room,” says Smith, who grew up just east of Cleveland in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Currently Smith is stationed at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia with the 513th military intelligence brigade.

After he finishes his commitment in early 2011, Smith plans to pursue a career in medical physics, defense research or quantitative finance.

“My focus was signal and image processing, and all these fields are different applications of the concepts I learned while at the Viterbi School,” Smith says.