Higher education is the next logical step for high-school graduates who have the aptitude and opportunity to take advantage of it, but sometimes, things don’t work out as planned. Some students get started and progress well along the degree track, only to get derailed by unforeseen circumstances: family issues, job issues, even lack-of-maturity and personal-responsibility issues. Sometimes, maybe years later, when those issues are no longer, well, issues, there may be a desire to get back to that unfinished degree.
In the traditional higher-education model, a full academic comeback for a student who has earned some college credits is sometimes unrealistic. Often, there are too many logistical obstacles to clear and it just doesn’t seem feasible. But with the innovative thinking of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Office of Continuing Education, there’s now a convenient way former college students can finish their degrees in a way that fits into almost any busy lifestyle. It’s called FGCU Complete. The program, started in January 2019, offers students who have already earned some college credit access to the same university faculty, privileges and administrative assistance – such as counseling, scholarships and financial aid – as full-time students.
FGCU Complete now features three bachelor’s programs – Integrated Studies, Interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship and Child and Youth Studies – along with relevant minors. Once enrolled, students progress at their own pace (at least one class per year is necessary to remain active), with the main requirement being that students complete at least 30 credit hours through FGCU Complete, or about one-fourth the usual undergraduate-degree mandate of 120 credit hours.
Through a combination of on-campus, in-community and online classes that are condensed into eight-week formats and taken at your own pace, “you can always go back and do it, no matter how long it takes, at any age,” said one of FGCU Complete’s satisfied customers, south Fort Myers resident and current student Jessica Correa.
Correa, a wife and mother who works full-time as an event coordinator at Fiddlesticks Country Club in south Fort Myers while doubling as office manager of her husband, Richie’s, air-conditioning business, ought to know. At age 38, with two jobs and two girls ages 12 and 10 to raise, it took Correa quite a while to get back to earning a four-year degree after she first attended a medical institute in Denver in 2001 to become a dental assistant, then earned an associate’s degree at the former Edison State College (now Florida SouthWestern) in 2011.
“I hoped to pursue a bachelor’s in business after I received my associate’s, but life got in the way,” Correa said. “I had to stop and put all my focus on my family, work full-time and help my husband get his business started.”
Now, Correa, whose internship as part of her FGCU Complete experience led to the Fiddlesticks job that enables her to “already do what I love,” will earn a Bachelor of Arts in Integrated Studies with a minor in Hospitality. Even more rewarding for Correa: “I wanted to show my daughters that college is important, and to become the first in my family to graduate from any college or university.
“The FGCU Complete program really has saved my life, with the flexibility to be able to take care of my family, our business, and so much more while pursuing my dream of graduating and doing what I want to,” Correa said. “My experience has been amazing from the beginning. One of the best decisions I have ever made was to go back and finish my degree.”
Today, Correa said her “light is getting brighter than even I could see it.” Now, with her bachelor’s degree forthcoming, the Fiddlesticks job she loves in hand and a future that she hopes includes starting her own event-planning business, Correa gives much of the credit to Kristen Vanselow, FGCU Complete director of operations.
“She was so supportive, flexible and helpful through the whole process,” Correa said of Vanselow, volunteering that the program director helped her navigate several stressful moments after Correa started FGCU Complete in summer 2019. “I might not have made it without her believing in me.”
For Vanselow, doing whatever she can to smooth the academic comeback for students such as Correa is what her job’s all about. In fact, the personal interest Vanselow takes in the 130 or so FGCU Complete students – she knows most, if not all, of their life stories, where they’ve been and what led them back to finishing school – along with the hands-on help she gives them in navigating their graduation plan, make her the perfect administrator for this type of program. And she totally embraces the role, calling it the “most rewarding position I’ve had in 22 years working in higher education.”
“This is an opportunity for FGCU to help students in a way the university never has,” said Vanselow, who has previously been part of FGCU’s accreditation team among other roles.
“We are willing to work with students who don’t present the best academic history. We are willing to work with students who want to finish the most courses in the least amount of time. We work with students who are like me – parents who are working full-time, and can’t drop everything to go back to school.
“There are a lot of different pathways leading people here … when they started out of high school it wasn’t the right fit, they had other career opportunities, they joined the military. Now, they are coming back for job advancement, or maybe to qualify for opportunities they were left out of because they don’t have a bachelor’s degree. We also have a number of former FGCU students returning, and now they can use all the credits they earned before, and hopefully finish the degree they started here.”
One former FGGU student is Michael Suchy of Bradenton. While it was life’s circumstances that got in the way of Jessica Correa’s higher-education journey, it was pursuing a boyhood dream that sidetracked Suchy for a couple years. A former star baseball player recruited out of Bradenton Southeast High School who won several ASUN Conference honors for the Eagles, Suchy, originally an Elementary Education major, left FGCU after his junior year in 2014 when he was taken in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates – still the highest selection of any FGCU position player (non-pitcher) in program history.
While FGCU Athletics prides itself on ensuring its student-athletes earn a degree by the time their NCAA eligibility is up, the kind of signing money a high major- league draft pick can get – along with a chance to chase that lifelong dream – can lure top prospects such as Suchy to leave school early. Today, Suchy is still pursuing his dream – he’ll begin his third season playing independent professional ball with Trois- Rivieres, Quebec, Canada, after spending the winter of 2017-18 playing in Sydney, Australia. But he’s also securing his future by finishing his degree requirements through FGCU Complete while coaching his former high school team in Bradenton before heading north for his own playing season.
“Education has always been very important to me,” said Suchy, who started FGCU Complete in spring 2019 and plans to graduate this spring with a bachelor’s in Integrated Studies and a minor in Education. “I pride myself on being the best in anything I do. Baseball is still my love, but I understood that in order to be the best contributor to society outside of baseball, I needed to continue my higher education.”
Suchy said while taking classes on campus creates the ideal opportunity for growth and learning because of the interpersonal relationships between teachers and students, “now that I’m in my fourth semester straight of online classes, I’m starting to appreciate them as well. Since I’m on the road a lot playing baseball professionally, I sometimes have less time to work and communicate with classmates, but it’s teaching me great time-management skills and life lessons I can apply when it comes to meeting deadlines in the real world.”
Suchy is most impressed by the “availability of the FGCU Complete staff, which is unbelievable. They make you feel as if you’re the only student they have,” he said. That feeling is no surprise, considering that Vanselow says the feedback she gets from participating faculty from all of FGCU’s colleges representing numerous disciplines is that they find it “very rewarding, even educational.” “For instance, you might be teaching a class on immigration, and find that a couple of your students are sheriff’s deputies who deal with these issues as part of their job, and bring real-life experiences into the classroom,” Vanselow said. It all adds up to an innovative way to reach students who, for whatever reason, drifted off the four-year degree path. “I relocated to Florida in 1999, and saw FGCU form from the ground up,” Vanselow said. “We were created as a commuter institution, and now we’re going back to our roots, really serving our workforce population in a different way. I enjoy knowing that.”
ABOUT FGCU COMPLETE
The program gives students who have previously earned college credits the chance to work toward a Bachelor of Arts in Integrated Studies or Interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship, or a Bachelor of Science in Child and Youth Studies. Select minors also are available. Depending on the program, students fulfill degree requirements with a combination of on-campus, online and in-community classes taught in a condensed, eight-week format. Students must complete at least 30 credit hours with FGCU.