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The School of continuing studies celebrates 25 years of personal attention to working adults

August 28, 2001 — It’s New Student Orientation for fall 2001. Students are filling out forms, posing for ID photos, forking out cash for textbooks, getting the scoop on majors or possible majors — all the typical first steps in a college career. But this isn’t your typical orientation and these aren’t your typical undergrads. Welcome to the School of Continuing Studies (SCS).

Founded in 1975 as New College and renamed the School of Continuing Studies in 1998, the school is the undergraduate evening and weekend division of St. Thomas and offers credit, noncredit and certificate program courses. Last year, it celebrated its 25th anniversary; the school has served 5,000 students seeking bachelor’s level classes and more than 15,000 students seeking non-credit courses and seminars.

One-stop shopping

SCS students typically have full-time jobs and often have families as well. SCS forgoes the traditional daylong orientation and offers an evening session scripted to meet the specific needs of working adults. SCS office manager (and SCS student) Diane Luke calls it "one-stop shopping for busy folks." Instead of giving students orientation-type tasks to complete and sending them off to circumnavigate the campus or leading them around the campus in small groups, SCS brings the campus to the students.

Academic adviser Lois Dament, erollment management director Bonney Bielen, Luke and staff leave the SCS office in O’Shaughnessy Educational Center (OEC) and set up temporary shop in Murray-Herrick Campus Center, conveniently adjacent to the ID Card office. When the 90 new students arrive, SCS staffers, including Dean Gene Scapanski, greet them. Students receive their orientation materials in a cotton canvas book bag with extra long handles. They finish paperwork, get ID cards, pop out the door to Public Safety for parking passes and across to the Bookstore to fill that book bag with textbooks.

Then it’s back into Murray-Herrick and a chance to ask questions of representatives from academic departments, the library, Dean of Student Life office and others. In only an hour, 90 students are set for a new school year and they and staffers sit down to dinner and speeches in the Rogge-Leyden Room.

Personal attention is key

"One-stop shopping" extends beyond orientation. The SCS office is open later in the evening during the school year. "They don’t have to worry about offices being closed at 4:30 or 5 p.m.," says Bielen. "Extended hours are regular hours around here." A well-lit, pleasant space in OEC with offices for staff and couches and chairs for students, the SCS office is home base. "They come here to the office for encouragement," says Luke. Dament agrees: "Encourage-ment, not just advising. Some students are insecure — they may have had a bad experience when they attended college right after high school. Sometimes they’re sheepish about their transcripts. We really encourage them. And I know that it helps because their GPAs just jump after they’ve started at St. Thomas."

SCS offers assistance for adult learners who may not have been in school for many years. "We tap into existing St. Thomas resources like courses at the Learning Center, says Dr. Kathy Oakley, director of noncredit programs. "We’ve put together our own Saturday morning noncredit workshops, especially in the area of math anxiety and math refreshers. Students sometimes worry that their study skills are rusty; they worry that they’re behind in technology. But we encourage them and say, ‘You can do this.’" Adds Bielen, "And they do."

SCS has a dozen local competitors in the area of undergraduate programs for working adults, but perhaps no equal in providing personal attention. "I’m sure our competitors offer a certain kind of personal service to students," says Scapanski, "but I think we’re very focused on personal attention to adult students. Ninety-one percent said that, if given the choice, they would choose to come to St. Thomas again. That’s a high affirmation of the quality education and level of personal attention they received here."

The proof is in the GPA

Many new students have been out of school for years, yet their average GPA is almost identical to that of day undergraduates fresh out of high school. "There is a belief out there that programs for working adults are simplified programs," says Scapanski, "and some of them are. But at St. Thomas, we offer a quality education for working adults."

SCS’s undergraduates do not get a watered-down academic experience; they are required to take the same St. Thomas curriculum as traditional day undergraduates, including theology, philosophy, English literature and the rest of the liberal arts core. Although students’ life experiences are valued and respected, no academic credit is given for them.

Fall semester’s 90 new students range in age from twenties to senior citizens. Some arrive straight from work still dressed in corporate suits; some arrive still wearing service industry uniforms and nametags. Young children accompany some students. "I think it’s good for my little girl to see me go to college," says one new student, a woman in her early 40s. "I’m the first generation in my family to go to college; someday she’ll be the second generation."

The line in front of the College of Business table is long. Business is the most popular major; more than half of SCS students choose it. SCS offers 15 majors obtainable in evening and weekend courses. Other majors are available to students who are able to take some day courses.

As of fall 2001, there are 464 full- and part-time students in SCS. The average age is 32. More than half are female, and 58 percent are single; many are single parents. Forty-two percent of the student body is Catholic, slightly less than the average for the day undergraduate program. In addition, SCS provides noncredit programs to 3,000 to 5,000 people each year.

When recently surveyed, 77 percent of the students said they did not consider the Catholic nature of St. Thomas when they chose to come to SCS. However, they express an appreciation of Catholic history and tradition. Says Oakley, "We often get raised eyebrows from students coming in — about the three required theology classes — but later we often hear them say, ‘Gee, these were the most interesting courses. I didn’t expect them to be, but they were some of the best courses I took.’"

Students with many stories

There are many reasons why students did not attend college right after high school, or if they did attend, why they chose to leave before graduation. Some were never encouraged to pursue college. Some were enticed to leave college by the offer of a full-time paycheck. Others had less than rewarding college experiences and left after a year or two. Some pursued associate degrees at community colleges, either as an end-goal or with the intention of transferring to a four-year college in time.

SCS students fall into many job categories: middle management, first-time supervisors, IT and engineering staff, business owners, finance industry reps, and service and food industry employees. The number of high-level managers who come to get their bachelor’s degrees surprises Bielen. "Many of our students are already well-positioned in their fields — management and even vice presidents. They come to St. Thomas because they need that credential that says they can do what they’re already doing," Bielen said.

The bar has been raised: The bachelor’s degree is the minimum education level required for many careers. In Minnesota alone, says Scapanski, "from 1987 to 1998, the number of people with bachelor’s degrees increased from 22 percent to 31 percent — that’s a big jump." Increasingly, adults find themselves competing for internal jobs or promotions against co-workers and external applicants who have bachelor’s degrees. The résumé of a person with excellent experience but no college degree often ends up on the prospective employer’s "no-call-back" pile.

Juggling: It looks so simple

It’s not easy trying to juggle a full-time job, a family and college. When alumna Gloria Smith-Meyer ’86 looks back on her college years, she remembers "traveling from the western suburbs to St. Paul during rush hour traffic. Once I was seated [in class], I would let out a sigh of relief and attempt to make a quick mental transition from traffic congestion, accidents and work." She also recalls that her social life was "nonexistent" during those years.

Designer Sports LLC founder and president Pamela Sheehan Ryan ’89 raised three daughters while earning her political science degree at SCS. Jim Weber ’92, a financial and management consultant, studied from 10 p.m. to midnight and from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., in order to juggle his job, full-time college and time with his three small children. Gabriel Acevedo ’99, father of three daughters, earned his bachelor’s degree while working his way up from dishwasher to a director of catering operations at Sun Country Airlines. In 1999, he was awarded a Yale University Research Fellowship and is pursuing doctoral studies.

The average student takes 1.75 courses per semester; many take courses year-round. This is a heavy class load for students who work full-time, but it doesn’t qualify most students for state and federal financial aid. The number of people who listed the cost of St. Thomas as an obstacle is high. Fifty percent receive company support for their studies, but that support can be as little as $500 per year. Most students bear the financial burden of a St. Thomas education themselves. Many take out private loans and home equity loans in order to finance their dreams of higher education.

It is Scapanski’s fervent hope that new donors will come forward to nourish the SCS endowment. "Our students need financial assistance," says Scapanski. "We need donors to contribute to endowment and our scholarship programs. I also hope that more employers will begin offering tuition assistance or consider raising the amount they currently offer."

A creative future

SCS offers a limited number of courses online. Scapanski hopes to increase this number. "Online courses won’t ever entirely replace classroom courses," says Scapanski. "Students need that human contact. But I do think that offering more classes online is of inestimable benefit to working students and their schedules." As the SCS endowment grows through the generosity of donors, Scapanski hopes to have the funds to increase the number of courses taught entirely online.

Another goal is the continuation and expansion of the partnerships with the community and industry. Bridge for Success, established in 1991 and part of SCS since 2000, provides tuition-free, noncredit courses to improve basic math and literacy skills. The project pays its own direct costs and St. Thomas contributes $50,000 in in-kind services. More than 80 percent of its students are people of color.

The average Bridge student improves more than two grade levels in math, reading or writing after attending just one 10-week quarter class. After completing the program, students are ready to pursue higher education and better jobs. Whether or not its students matriculate at St. Thomas, the Bridge for Success contributes to the community in a way that is tangible and in keeping with the Catholic tradition.

Keep thinking of the goal

Perhaps new student Tanisha Garza best sums up the history and the future of the School of Continuing Studies when, at the end of new student orientation, she lifts her canvas bag of new textbooks onto her shoulder and says, "Well, it’s already a struggle and it’s gonna keep on being a struggle to pay St. Thomas. And work and school and reading and writing papers and my two kids — I don’t know when I’m going to sleep. But I want a job that pays something. So I keep thinking of the goal and I’ll keep on thinking of the goal."