The educational needs of a community are always evolving. Whether it’s making adult education more easily accessible or expanding course offerings, colleges and universities must come up with ways to best serve their local communities.
In the words of Father Bernard O’Connor, OSFS, president of DeSales University, “A university must be distinctive. It must stand within the society in such a way that it provides service to that society.”
DeSales was founded in 1965 on that notion of service. At the time, there was no liberal arts college for Catholics in the Lehigh Valley. At the request of Bishop Joseph McShea, Allentown College of Saint Francis de Sales filled that void.
Several years later, through the college’s association with the various parishes of the Diocese of Allentown, the need for adults to gain more educational experience became evident. By 1977, Allentown College introduced ACCESS, the first accelerated adult evening undergraduate program of its kind in the region.
“You had to change the culture of the institution, which was geared to serve the traditional student,” says Rev. Alexander Pocetto, OSFS, who helped create ACCESS and served as academic dean. The program was tailored to the students and allowed them to complete a three-credit evening course by attending class twice a week. Courses were readjusted to suit the adult population better, and campus services, such as library and bookstore hours, were extended.
Those changes helped to make education more flexible, accessible, and affordable. And they didn’t just benefit students. “The employers saw the importance of their employees getting further education,” says Pocetto. “The better educated your workforce is, the more competitive it is. The more effective they are in their jobs.”
Another request from the community prompted Allentown College to explore the possibility of graduate studies. At the time, nurses at Sacred Heart Hospital had to travel to Philadelphia to take master’s level courses. By 1984, they had another option — enroll in Allentown College’s first graduate degree program, the Master of Science in Nursing. The program became so successful that others soon followed, including the Master in Business Administration (MBA), which is now the second largest MBA program in Pennsylvania.
Today, DeSales continues to gauge the community’s needs in different ways. O’Connor and Father Peter Leonard, OSFS, dean of graduate education, recently visited the CEOs of 16 major healthcare providers in the area, from hospitals and health networks to rehabilitation facilities and those that care for seniors. It’s something the University has been doing every few years and will continue to do. “For us, it works in two directions,” says Leonard. “One is people come to us for healthcare education, but we go out to these institutions looking for clinical sites for the healthcare education we have.”
The visits also help the University shape the future of its healthcare program. Leonard expects a rise in healthcare delivery as the local population ages. “The area continues to grow despite a population shrinkage, and it continues to grey,” he says. “It’s pretty well demonstrated that the older you get; the more medical attention you need. It’s an area that’s going to be there and it’s going to be bigger.”
Leonard also anticipates that business and computer science will play a significant role in healthcare education as well. Healthcare providers are already looking for employees with computer skills, and that need will only continue to grow. “It’s very clear that healthcare is in a state of transition and consolidation,” he says.
Leonard is currently compiling a report that will determine several feasibility studies in areas such as pharmacy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. It remains to be seen whether these become the next academic programs at DeSales. But one thing is for certain. The University will continue to follow its mission and work together with the local community for the greater good.