Next stop for these Penn State graduates: Teaching the military's next leaders

The U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy Fellowship program provides access to master's degree through Penn State World Campus

Sgts. Maj. Melissa O'Brien and Christopher Padgett are two of the 20 fellows who received a master's degree from Penn State as part of the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy Fellowship program. Credit: Abby Drey / Penn StateCreative Commons

Penn State has a longstanding and proud tradition of serving the men and women of our military through education benefits, resources, support and more. As part of Penn State’s ongoing military appreciation, we offer the following story.*

Through Penn State, Army Sgt. Maj. Melissa O’Brien learned the best ways to teach adults. Now she’s putting her degree to use as the director of a distance education program that trains the military’s next generation of leaders.

O’Brien is one of 20 Army sergeants major who completed a master’s degree online through Penn State World Campus as part of the prestigious U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy Fellowship program. In their first year, the sergeants major complete a master of education in lifelong learning and adult education, and after graduation, they go on to teach in the Sergeants Major Course, which teaches leadership skills to the military’s highest enlistees.

“This is another opportunity that allows me to continue serving while doing what I am passionate about, teaching and mentoring soldiers,” O’Brien said.

The fellows are being recognized Tuesday (Aug. 21) at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy on base at Fort Bliss, Texas. They received their degrees during the summer 2018 commencement on Aug. 11 and were provided red, white and blue military honor cords by Penn State President Eric Barron.

O’Brien has served in the Army for 28 years with roles in military intelligence. Most recently she was an instructor and department chair at the academy.

In her new role with the distance education program, O’Brien will work on faculty development, curriculum redesign and overhauling the online version of the Sergeants Major Course. She said the online program she completed with Penn State is a model for the future of the military’s distance education program.

“When I think about the Penn State experience, from beginning to end, by far it’s been exceptional,” she said, praising her professors, technical support and library resources.

Sgt. Maj. Christopher Padgett has served for 28 years in the California Army National Guard, most recently at the Pentagon for the National Guard Bureau, where he was the executive officer to the command sergeant major of the Army National Guard. He has been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo; he worked with law enforcement agencies on the U.S.-Mexico border; and he responded to natural disasters like earthquakes, fires and floods.

Padgett said he looks forward to teaching for the Sergeants Major Course, a 10-month program that noncommissioned officers complete before earning the rank of sergeant major.

“To be an instructor at the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy is an honor, and to be teaching younger soldiers who are at that last step to become sergeants major has been a dream of mine,” Padgett said.

He said he was not sure what to expect when he began his Penn State courses, because he had not been in a school environment in almost 20 years.

“I was completely nervous to enter this program, but the past year has been nothing but a rewarding experience,” he said. “Penn State made it so easy, so comfortable for me and relieved my stress.”

The cohort is the third to graduate from Penn State since the fellowship program began in 2015. The fourth group arrived at Fort Bliss for orientation last week.

Visit the Penn State World Campus website for more information about learning online.

*This year's Military Appreciation Week at the University begins with a Penn State football game on Oct. 27 leading up to Veterans Day on Nov. 11. This year's theme will recognize 100 years of women officially serving in the U.S. Armed Forces with special events and activities, including community football tailgate, library showcase, speaker events and more. For additional information, visit

Last Updated July 12, 2021