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SOU supports learning across the age span

When most people think of a university, images of degree-seeking 18- to 22-year-olds come to mind. The mission of the Outreach & Engagement Programs division at Southern Oregon University, however, is much broader. A behind-the-scenes look at its programs expands the definitions of “university” and “lifelong learning.”

SOU "Pirates to Raiders" Pathway Program graduation ceremony

Rachel Jones, director of Outreach & Engagement, said, “It’s natural for people to project from their own experience of college life. Higher education today, even for recent high school graduates, is undergoing profound change. SOU has been at the forefront of these changes because of its longstanding commitment to establishing extensive relationships and collaborations within our community. We believe it is critically important to extend accessible and conveniently scheduled educational opportunities and the university’s resources to serve the needs of our region and its diverse population of people of all ages.”

Jones explained that based on the realization that the K-12 years set the stage for a lifelong engagement with learning, SOU Pre-College Youth Programs has offered educational programs to this age group in Southern Oregon for more than 40 years. It offers summer camps, enrichment classes and workshops, regional academic competitions, and early college credit programs for high school students.

A particular focus on the region’s rural communities, first-generation students, and Latino and Native American youth has been successful in encouraging their pursuit of educational opportunities beyond high school. In a typical year, SOU provides tuition assistance to more than 850 students who participate in pre-college programs that take place on the SOU campus. Of the youth served, approximately 40% are from rural communities, and for the Latino programs, 45% of participants are migrant students.

Statistically, underserved youth are far less likely to go on to post-secondary education. Experiencing life on a college campus and feeling a sense of belonging when they are there opens up possibilities that many of these youth otherwise would not consider. As one student stated, “Attending this program rerouted my path and the life I was headed toward.”

Through a partnership between the SOU Pre-College Youth Programs, SOU’s School of Education, the Southern Oregon Education Service District’s Migrant Education Program, and the Medford and Phoenix-Talent school districts, the university provides a clear pathway for Latino students beginning in eighth grade and supporting them through high school, and into college.

While all areas of study are encouraged and supported, SOU provides an added incentive for students interested in a career in education due to the great need for a diverse new generation of educators that reflect the Southern Oregon community. The university provides these pathway students who pursue the university’s Masters in Teaching program with additional academic support and financial aid. Not only does this benefit program participants, it develops a diverse teaching workforce to support our region’s future students.

Stacey Derrig, SOU’s assistant director for corporate relations, facilitates learning opportunities for the region’s working professionals. “In today’s evolving workplace, whether as an employee or an entrepreneur, working adults often need to deepen and advance their skills,” Derrig said. SOU’s professional development programs provide these skills through workshops for teachers, businesses and others to fill gaps identified by local employers. Credit classes are also available to community members as professional development.

Many employers send staff members to SOU professional development workshops to further develop their leadership and professional skills. As one participant stated, “The tools I learned to incorporate into my daily life will help both professionally and personally.” The upskilling provided by these workshops is one of several options that SOU provides. The university also offers stackable micro credentials that assist professionals to be competent in specific areas such as values-based leadership, team leadership and collaboration, and project management.

Other programs for adults of all ages include online noncredit classes, other workshops/classes/conferences, information about auditing regular university classes, and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program. The latter, an SOU-supported program for over 28 years, has been well-covered in these lifelong learning columns. The other three adult education areas are less known and provide a variety of benefits for the community. For example, most of the classes in the Innovation and Leadership program at SOU can be taken as professional development.

SOU Outreach & Engagement does not limit its commitment to regional education to its own campuses. It encourages community members to visit the web pages of its sister institutions — Oregon State University and Rogue Community College. For more information about the full spectrum of lifelong learning opportunities at SOU, visit inside.sou.edu/dce or call 541-552-6899.

Anne Bellegia, a retired communications professional in the medical products industry, volunteers on the OLLI Communications and Community Outreach Committee.