A new center launched by Saint Leo University is helping learners of all backgrounds.

Saint Leo opened the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs during the summer in a digital space housed on the university website. The center aspires to be an educational provider of choice, focused on addressing the continuing education needs of the current workforce. While the center offers programs unlike those found in a traditional university experience, it was started in the same spirit that motivated the founders of the university more than a century ago: to fulfill the needs of prospective learners.

What makes the center distinct is its speed and flexibility. It operates apart from the academic colleges that each create degree programs that require longer periods of committed study, and it pivots more easily to meet marketplace needs. The center also helps individuals meet challenges that will arise at certain points in their careers.

People who have completed some level of formal education or workplace training still find, on a regular basis, that they need to learn new techniques, business processes, or programs, or revisit material, explained Dr. Cindy Lee, director of the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs. This happens because applied practices and knowledge for work environments now become outdated quickly, in as little as four years, Lee said. Additionally, disruptions in the economy can force people to look for new work requiring new skill sets, as the recession created by the novel coronavirus has done.  

“Naturally, we didn’t expect the pandemic and resulting economic damage when we started the center,” Lee said. “But we hope any alumni who find they could use new skills will turn to our programs to see if we might meet their needs.”

The Age of Upskilling

Those looking for new work, those trying to advance in their careers, and adults who are simply interested in new areas of knowledge are all candidates who should consider “upskilling” through the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs, according to Lee.

The array of course offerings available through the center is already broad. Instruction in so-called soft skills—such as effective writing, public speaking, or overall workplace communications skills—is available because so many business owners and executives complain that those capabilities are often lacking in employees and potential new hires. 

Hard skills are offered as well, such as statistical process control and various computer programs and robotics. Data analytics and data visualization are among the more analytically-oriented skills that businesses want more employees to possess, Lee added.

Both hard and soft skills are desired in industry sectors across the contemporary economy. As prospective learners look through the center’s website, they will see next to the course information on the amount of time in hours or weeks courses are expected to take. The cost of each course is also clearly visible. Some courses offer certificates upon completion. Pricing is set on a course-by-course basis.

Micro-credentials are Another Alternative Path

An area of special interest to some learners will be the tier of center courses developed for those with some prior career experience or developed aptitude. These courses are more personalized to career fields, and the center awards micro-credentials to those who complete them.  

Some of the micro-credentials courses that fit this category are cognitive behavioral therapy skills for counselors; basic security management for law enforcement and military personnel who want to move into the private sector; and a suite of artificial intelligence (AI) training courses. A micro-credential offering is being developed for educators who want to become more adept at teaching reading in K-12 settings, and that draws upon the expertise of Saint Leo’s Graduate Education Department faculty.

When learners have completed their micro-credential, they are eligible to receive a digital “badge” from the university. Badges validate to employers and other interested parties the learners’ accomplishments. Since digital badges can be incorporated into online résumés and social media platforms, such as LinkedIn profiles, they can help the badge-earners set themselves apart in the workforce.

Helping Professionals Learn Additional Skills

Brittany Hahn ’15 completed her Master of Social Work degree with Saint Leo University recently, yet still was happy to find the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs was up and running. Hahn completed a micro-credential course on a therapy technique—cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) —that social workers and other types of counselors employ. CBT is described in professional literature as a form of talk therapy that helps a client change harmful thinking patterns and bad habits over time, and gradually become able to do so independently, without a therapist being present. Hahn respected the potential benefits and was eager to receive formal training in the approach.

“CBT is a well-established, evidenced-based therapy and considered a best practice for many disorders,” Hahn explained. So if she could find good training, she was confident she would become even more proficient as a social worker in a specialized hospital in suburban Tampa.

The six-week course required 90-minute, weekly online class meetings, and the content met her expectations. “I benefited from the small class size and felt like I received personalized instruction,” she said. Upon completion, she said she was “instantly able to implement the skills I learned from the course.”

Similarly, Jennifer Tillery said she found immediate benefit from the micro-credential she earned, though hers is from a beginning-level course in grantsmanship. She works in family support services for the Head Start agency in her area of north Florida, a position that entails working with other collaborative agencies that are often looking for new sources of funding. Coincidentally, Tillery has always loved to write and thought she could expand her skill set by learning grant writing, but specifically did not want to have to enroll in a degree program.

The five-week grantsmanship micro-credential, with weekly classes three hours long, fit the bill. Tillery said the instructor was very skilled at breaking down each concept so that the students attain a thorough understanding of the material, and also was available outside course hours. Tillery said she is motivated to take continuing grantsmanship courses if the center offers them. “I actually have three agencies that would like me to help get the process started of looking for grants,” she said.

Employers and Associations Can Ask for Customized Solutions

Even though new courses are under development, Lee said the center is looking for more ideas. She hopes alumni will recommend subject areas the center should be exploring.

The center will also deliver course instruction to particular workplaces or organizations, Lee noted, whether online or in-person, as conditions permit. In fact, the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs can create customized courses, Lee said, so that workplaces or work-related groups can be assured that the material presented meets the clients’ needs.

The center has already responded to changing, emergent conditions. Earlier this year, when people began to shelter in place as COVID-19 overtook the economy, University President Jeffrey Senese asked faculty to create some free, online enrichment courses to provide people with diversion and entertainment. A new spot was created on the center website for the mini-catalog of free courses, and people who were interested in offerings such as backyard birding or budget baking signed up using the center’s online registration capabilities.

None of that was in the initial plan for the center, but it does serve as proof of the center’s adaptability, said Dr. Mary Spoto, vice president of Academic Affairs. The center falls under her areas of responsibility.

The center also serves as an example of another theme that Saint Leo emphasizes: Learning should not stop after graduates earn their degrees, Spoto said.

“In the future, the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs will represent a much larger part of the institution,” she predicted. “We will have short-term instruction that can be very quick in responding to market needs and can be delivered on a one-course basis, or through short-term but sequential courses. Our new offerings for K-12 educators who want reading instruction is one example, and our credentials on cognitive behavior therapy for counselors is another. Our longer-term, academic degree programs will continue, of course, with the result that Saint Leo will be an institution that offers multiple ‘doors’ for people to enter and find the educational solution that best fits. We have always said that we want our students to be lifelong learners, and with a quickly evolving workforce of today, the need is greater than ever. Through the center, we are helping more people become true lifelong learners.”

For More Information

The Center for Alternative Pathway Programs is actively enrolling students. Saint Leo University alumni may also take advantage of a special 10 percent discount. To learn more, email micro@saintleo.edu or visit saintleo.edu/micro-credentials.

As I write this article, I’m sitting in my friend’s living room in Rio de Janeiro, where I studied as a high school exchange student five years ago. I’m back, 30 countries later, surrounded by familiar faces in the neighborhood that started my love for travel. But now I embrace my experience here from a totally different perspective.

My 2016 started off with no electricity during a citywide blackout in the interior of Brazil. Instead of celebrating the New Year, I was editing an interview my film crew conducted earlier that day with a journalist covering the mudslides that occurred near our city of Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais. The reality of travel and working abroad is not simple, and it’s certainly not as easy as many people fantasize it to be. Working productively in constantly changing environments and political situations requires flexibility and adaptability, which is contrary to the stable conditions that most people believe are necessary to work effectively. However, regardless of the many inconveniences and surprises, this is the most rewarding kind of job I can imagine.

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In late November of last year, toxic mudslides from a burst dam at an iron ore mine contaminated three major rivers that are the water source for more than 250,000 people. They also killed thousands of fish and displaced hundreds of families. Recovery of the Rio Doce and its dependent environments is expected to take more than 30 years.

In situations such as I faced here in Brazil, where film and photography are the tools used to convey messages and address global issues, travel and education are synched. Inevitably, while traveling, the truths of injustice, crisis, and poverty are also brought to the surface in our lens. In many countries I have been pulled to crisis, and local issues surfacing, and facing the fundamentals of human injustice in conflict.

As an international hospitality and tourism major, I remember sitting in class during my freshman year when a guest speaker spoke about his work in the Peruvian Amazon. I followed this dream to the rain forest. What was conceived as a three-month summer internship turned into a six-month project that enabled me to learn how to analyze cultural issues and how tourism interacted with culture all over Peru. My internship allowed me to travel with a professional purpose, push myself to the best of my abilities, and learn the power of image in our visual world.

We are taught in our courses to follow our dreams, as our passions will push us to excel. My professors and advisors encouraged the idea that a true understanding of the world exists outside the classroom, and the best education we can have is experiencing it. The purpose of university is to teach us to succeed in the real world.

“I’ve been detained at borders. I have also heard stories and met people I will never forget who taught me what it means to be human in the context of saying ‘I love you’ and ‘cheers’ in 15 languages.”

— Erin Skoczylas ’16

Among my university courses were business strategies and languages. However, my most valuable lessons in photography and travel were gained outside the classroom. My financial skills came from learning how to budget my travels and bargain for vital goods and services. My language skills were attained when I forced myself to survive in a foreign environment.

I have sailed across the world, hitchhiked on two continents, slept in the port of Hong Kong, camped in deserts, in jungles, and on the sides of a highway. I’ve been detained at borders. I have also heard stories and met people I will never forget who taught me what it means to be a human in the context of saying “I love you” and “cheers” in 15 languages. Who’s to say that education is not learning to climb Machu Picchu on my own, watching the sunrise over the ancient temples of Bagan, or learning to ride a motorbike in India? These are moments when I challenged myself as a person, as a traveler, and as a photographer. They have led to the most extraordinary experiences, and my best photos are the ones I have taken when I put myself at greatest risk.

University is not only a time to invest in your education, but to invest in yourself as a person and develop the mental skills you need to build your career. I am now in my final semester, finishing my courses online. In the real world at last, I will be working and learning more about the wetlands of Brazil and then interning in Costa Rica. You’ll find me somewhere in a jungle, in the mountains, or on a beach with a camera.