One responsibility the pandemic has forced on educators is to rethink everything they do for students.

One realization Merced College came to was that it’s more adept at delivering an online education than it thought.

One opportunity that has emerged is what President Chris Vitelli describes as “a student-centered approach for working professionals to advance their careers.”It is called Relaunch, and the fast-track program built for adults with lives and jobs will kick off in August for Fall 2022. Students will have the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree in just 17 months, with programs offering 6-, 9- and 12-week sessions.

All classes in Business, Child Development, Computer Technology & Information Systems (CTIS) or Criminal Justice will be delivered online. Working students can study when they have time. Support services, like financial aid and counseling, will also be available to students virtually. No need to come on campus.

Students will work in cohorts in Relaunch, advancing toward degrees together and building their own support systems along the way. Faculty and student services will work together as well, so students don’t have to guess who to approach if they need help beyond the classroom.

“Hopefully we’ll be more agile in how we serve students,” said Karissa Morehouse, Assistant Superintendent and Vice President of Instruction. “I think our faculty are looking forward to working with a team and not feeling alone while trying to help students.”

When an industry is always changing

The skills needed to work within the CTIS industry are always evolving because technology never stops evolving. Newcomers can find it hard to jump into a job since they’re so skill-specific.

Computer Science professor Bhrigu Celly, Ph.D., has years of relevant work experience in CTIS, like working on blockbuster movies with Sony Pictures. He has long felt that shortening the time it takes to earn a CTIS degree was important to narrow the gap between learning skills and executing them.

Celly sees the urgency in how quickly his courses fill up each semester. Students know they’re instantly employable after taking one course. CTIS was also a good choice for Relaunch because it attracts so many different types of students. Celly teaches high school students who are trying to figure out if they want a CTIS job or career, adults with bachelor’s degrees who want to add skills, and even those with master’s degrees who want to change careers. He teaches IT professionals who come back to retrain themselves and current college students who need one certification to enhance their resume when they apply for internships.

And they’re all in class together.

“The need for CTIS training is so high,” Celly said. “People need very specific training for a lot of different work, and can’t go to school for every small thing. Employers don’t always care about people having a B.A. or M.A. They just need people who can do the work right now.”

Celly is ready to make Relaunch work because of how well it fits the needs of his industry.

“I’ve been here three years, and I’m having so much fun,” Celly said. “We’re talking about new technology all the time here and about putting Merced on the map with this department.”

When a degree is the only way to advance

Instructor David Noblett, a retired sergeant with the Chowchilla Police Department, and colleague Mark Johnson make up the Relaunch faculty for the criminal justice degree. They have been eager to offer a fast track for their always-impacted program so more current officers can move through the ranks of their agencies.

That’s because, years ago, officers could join an agency with a high school diploma and academy training. Then they earned promotions through time and hard work.

That path is no longer quite so clear. Many agencies now require a college degree for promotion. Also, a new law in California will require police officers to be 21 and hold a bachelor’s degree to start.

Noblett understands why starting back at college in the middle of one’s career can feel daunting. He was a “two-time quitter” himself.

He graduated early from Madera High and was a 17-year-old freshman at Fresno State when he realized college was harder than high school. He dropped out and went to the police academy instead. Years later, he went back to take some college classes to start receiving promotions.

“And then I realized I’d be 104 before I got my degree,” Noblett said.

He eventually earned one with the University of Phoenix, but he and Johnson realized long ago that online classes could be the answer for their peers.

“Law enforcement is all shift work; they can’t plan 18 weeks ahead,” Noblett said. “The pandemic shifted us online, and we wanted to be there anyway.”

When community begs for a new idea

The 17-month window and faster pace with Relaunch means busy, working adults aren’t likely to waste time or get bored.

“That’s not to say you can’t take these programs if you’re not a working professional, but we wanted to be very intentional to make sure we fit their needs,” Morehouse said. “We realized we needed a new way.”

Merced College will eventually add more degrees and more cohorts for the existing majors.“It’s very exciting,” Morehouse said. “I see huge potential.”


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