Last month Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool) alumnus Herb Holbrook and his family had dinner with Vice President Joseph Biden at the Vice President’s home on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Herb, who completed his master’s degree in information management online from the iSchool in 2012, is an expeditionary cyber opposing force manager for the United States Army. We interviewed him to find out about his big dinner with the VP (who also is an Syracuse University Law School  graduate) and about Herb’s online education at the iSchool at Syracuse.

Ryan Rabac (RR): Tell us about your visit with the Vice President. How were you selected?

Herb Holbrook (HH): Cindy Simerly, director of marketing for the Military Child Education Coalition, invited us. She was asked by the staffers from Joining Forces to assist in identifying military families that could be featured in a short documentary on what life in a military family is like.

Cindy knew our family and thought we’d be a good fit. The director from Reading Rainbow did a Skype interview with my son, then we were selected.

RR: Tell us about getting to see your son talk to Mr. Biden.

HH: I felt honored and humbled at the same time. My son was seated at the center of the long, rectangular table directly across from Vice President Biden. He asked the Vice President why he got into politics. As the Vice President was answering my son’s question, I could see how engaged my son was with his response. It was a proud moment, captured in LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow video below (see at 7:50 and 8:15).


Looking to Transition

Holbrook will be transitioning out of the military in the next couple of years, and he believes his degree from the iSchool will make a big difference in leveraging a career in the civilian world. He said the experiences he shared were well received by his peers, and he learned just as much from the diverse backgrounds of his classmates.

Learning Online

We asked Herb a few questions about his choice to pursue an online degree at the iSchool.

RR: What about the iSchool led you to choose Syracuse University for your degree, anything specifically as a veteran?

HH: There are a few reasons: strength of program, reputation of the school, and the partnership between Syracuse University and the U.S. Army Cyber Leader College at Fort Gordon, home to the Signal Center of Excellence. As a result of this partnership, I received credit for military work completed in my Information Systems Manager course, my application fee was waived, and I didn’t have to take an exam such as the GRE or GMAT. As a veteran, I was able to use my Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for my courses.

RR: Describe your course with Dr. [Paul] Gandel and how he became a mentor for you.

Paul Gandel Portrait

Dr. Paul Gandel /Photo via iSchool at SU

HH: The course was well taught and he injected thoughtful discussion questions. Dr. Gandel gave constructive feedback and shared his own

experiences to illustrate points. Over the past few years, the successful people I have met have at least one mentor in their life. I felt that having a mentor was necessary to reach the next level. So, I reached out to Dr. Gandel because of his background working as a CIO. I have appreciated his counsel and as I transition from a successful military career to a civilian career. I know I will need to lean on someone who can provide the encouragement and guidance I will need to be a successful leader at the next level.

RR: How did you like the online curriculum and did you feel as engaged as if you were there in person?

HH: The online format gives you greater flexibility in managing course work with the rest of your life, especially if you have a busy schedule or one that frequently changes. Collaboration is different than being there in person. It simply takes greater effort to communicate when you are geographically dispersed across different time zones.

Finding A Mentor

Herb reached out to one of his favorite professors from the iSchool, Dr. Paul Gandel, to share his recent experience of dinner with the Vice President.

Dr. Gandel teaches managing information systems in large enterprises and the iSchool’s AsiaTech immersion class. He formerly served as the Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Syracuse University.

Professor Gandel told us how he and Herb were able to build a great teaching relationship, even though they never met personally, since Herb took his class online.

“For me, probably the most gratifying reaction [to hearing about Herb’s story]was not only that it was an incredible experience for Herb and his family, but it was humbling that Herb reached out to me to share the experience,” Gandel said. He noted how “many students considering online programs wonder if they will be getting the same quality education as they would sitting in a classroom, and if you really can earn a degree from afar while working and caring for a family.”

The professor also noted that, when he first went back to teaching after stepping down as Syracuse University’s CIO, he was a little wary of teaching courses online. He said he had to figure out how to adapt his interactive and informal style to an online format. For instance, every week, Gandel requires his students to ask “one really good, thoughtful, reflective question on the material.”

Management Parallels

Dr. Gandel sees many parallels between management training and experience in the military. He believes in using both the parallels and differences to create a richer, more interactive classroom experience.

“Both the professors and students learn from each other by the experiences we bring to the virtual classroom,” Gandel said. “It is always fascinating to me the kinds of experiences, essentially stories, we can all learn from that a lot of the veterans bring to the classroom.”

Programs for Veterans and Families

The Syracuse University iSchool offers several degree programs, both online and in person, designed with special considerations for veterans, military, and military families. Some benefits include greater flexibility, partnerships such as the U.S. Army Signal Center, and potential recognition of military experience for credit. A video telling more about the experience is here.

Syracuse University as a whole has made a commitment to become the best school for student veterans. This is done to honor a tradition of service that began as early as World War I and expanded greatly when then Chancellor William P. Tolley invited all returning World War II veterans to come to Syracuse for an education. Today, the SU Office of Veteran and Military Affairs offers a multitude of resources that makes us the best college for veterans, military, and the military-connected alike!