College Unbound: Hands-On Exploration of NH & Beyond

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1.) How/when did College Unbound come about and what is your role with the program?

Beth J. Sheehan, DirectorCollege Unbound was actually created by a not-for-profit organization called Big Picture Learning. Big Picture Learning (BPL) is an organization that has designed alternative educational models for 75+ high schools across North America and internationally (Israel, Australia, Canada, Netherlands). BPL believes in personalized and real-world learning, connecting student passions with community and industry needs while making curriculum relevant through real-world projects and application. BPL saw a need for a similar model in higher education and thus created College Unbound. Our President, Dr. Paul LeBlanc, was a member of the BPL Board and is also a strong advocate for innovation in higher education. He became interested in bringing College Unbound to SNHU and that how it all basically started. I was fortunate that our Provost, Dr. Patty Lynott, knew of my passion for experiential learning and she asked if I would be interested in directing the initiative on campus. I started working with various constituencies on campus to get the program approved by our University Curriculum Committee and ultimately the Board of Trustees of our University. From there, we went to work recruiting and launching with our first cohort Fall 2011. Now, as we are in the process of recruiting our third cohort, my primary role as Director is strategic development in all areas of the program – curriculum, community outreach, recruitment, assessment, etc.

2.) Have you seen an increase in interest since the program started with students/teachers/businesses that provide the internships?

This is a great question because really there was always a lot of interest in the program from the very start among teachers and businesses. When I speak to teachers and guidance counselors they are amazed and excited that such a program exists. There are many programs at the high school level across the state, such as Extended Learning Opportunities, that are designed in a similar way as College Unbound – focusing on competency development and real world application and not just completing credits in a traditional way. Education is moving in this direction at all levels. In terms of internship sites, when we were in the program proposal stage we made sure we met with businesses to ensure they would support such a program and model. We were glad that all those we connected with fully supported the program – companies like Citizens Bank, PSNH, American Cancer Society.

Many of the professionals we spoke with in fact wished such a program existed when they were going to college. Students are perhaps the more challenging group to connect with simply because many students still know and think of college in the “pop culture” way. It’s tough to introduce a completely new and unconventional approach when students already have so much to think about when making a decision about college. And, it can be difficult to wrap your head around the idea of a college degree where you are directly involved in the conversation about what you will learn rather than being given the list of courses you are to take. I’m very encouraged though by the response and interest that comes from the parents. Parents have become more open-minded about educational options. Many parents are fully aware of the learning style of their children and they are willing to take time to investigate programs that will help their child succeed. Often, parents find us because they know we might be a great fit for their child who might not want the traditional classroom education. As is the case for any new program, and especially when it is off the beaten path, it takes time to turn interest into action (applying) but there is definitely interest and as more people learn about the program I know the interest will continue to increase.

3.) What are the reactions you’ve seen from students in the program? How do you track their progress with their internship?

Of course, I’m probably bias but their reactions are extremely positive 🙂 Of course, they have their ups and downs as do we – in many ways we are like a family (staff and students collectively). The students in our program are really pioneers of sorts and we were always up front with them during the recruitment process that we too are learning through this process. We remind the students that they have a voice in the development of the program and its future and we want to know what’s working and what’s not working for them so we can best help them reach their goals. Many students say that some of the conversations and experiences they’ve engaged in thus far would never have happened if not for their time in College Unbound. They are only in their fourth semester (about halfway through the program) and so it is rewarding to hear these comments.

We focus on working closely with the internship advisor to ensure the student is making progress and likewise to get important feedback around what we can do better to maximize the experience for the internship site. Our Academic Coordinator, Mike Reaves, is responsible for working one-on-one with students in all areas of their curriculum, including internships. Mike meets bi-weekly with the Professional Advisor because we want to address any issues, gaps, etc. that might exist for a student as soon as possible. Our internships are different than the typical internship in many ways. For one, students receive credit not based on the number  of hours completed but the performance and completion of a project that is meaningful to the organization/internship site. We also use the student’s internship project as a foundation for designing their individualized learning plan. What this means is students are not only working on their internship project the two days they are at the site, they are also putting in work on their projects outside of those days/hours when they are back on campus. As a result, students do not view their internship as separate or distinct from the other work they are doing and instead view it as integral and connected to all of their studies.

4.) Why did you decide to go with College Unbound versus a traditional four year degree?

Ebony, College Unbound Student (interested in justice studies/psychology): When I first began to look into colleges during my junior and senior year of high school, they wereall very similar and they didn’t really stand out to me. Beth, the coordinator of College Unbound at SNHU, came to visit my school in the Bronx and introduced College Unbound. I chose to be a part of this program because it is unique and it helps me to push myself deeper into my work. I love the one-on-one attention that we get from the staff and I love that I am able to design my own learning and make connections with not only the SNHU community but also the greater community of Manchester.

5.) What does a typical day/week look like for you? In terms of internship work, class, homework, how does it all work?

This semester is set up a little differently for me since I am a sophomore. Monday’s I am doing work study from 10:00am-1:30pm and then after attending my organizational behavior class with the rest of the Sophomore’s from 2:00-3:15pm. Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s are dedicated to doing an internship whether it be in Manchester or in the new Hampshire area. On Thursday, I have another Organizational Behavior Seminar from 2:00pm-3:15pm followed by an Ethics seminar from 3:30-5:00pm. Every Friday, the College Unbound program gets together for what we call Wrap-Up where we discuss some of our glums and glows of the week, make announcements for upcoming events and projects, and occasionally do a group activity to wine down from a long week. This semester I am also taking an independent course which is the Introduction to Criminal Justice which is on Tuesday’s and Friday’s from 8:00am-9:15am. For the most part, our weeks are pretty busy when you are a student a part of College Unbound but we do have the opportunity to join clubs and get integrate ourselves in the campus.

6.) If you could describe this program in 5 words what would they be?

Beth, Director: Experiential, Innovative, Transformative, Exhilarating, Rewarding

Ebony, Student: Innovative, Experiential, Fun, Different, Life Changing

Watch this quick video to get a good synopsis of the College Unbound program!

College Unbound is a new, three-year, year-round innovative program bachelor’s degree program offered at Southern New Hampshire University. It is described as a hands-on, project-based, and real world approach to a college curriculum. This means that rather than classes and seat time, students focus on designing a learning plan that is connects their passions and interests with a collection and variety of experiences (internships, projects, community service, and travel abroad) that they will engage in to demonstrate they have developed the knowledge and skills to earn a degree. Students graduate with three years of relevant work experience, a portfolio of projects in field of interest, transferable skills that businesses seek in graduates and a network of mentors and colleagues to help them reach their goals.