As Saint Leo President Dr. Arthur F. Kirk, Jr. prepares to retire, one of the many legacies he leaves the university is the Center for Online Learning.

"The freedom to work at my own pace, at any time of the day or night, was priceless," says recent Saint Leo graduate Patricia Bernard-Fingal who earned a bachelor's degree in health care management online.

In addition to wishing to finish a college degree as a personal goal, Patricia wanted to demonstrate to her children and grandchildren that "neither age nor negative life occurrences should be deterrents to fulfilling their dreams."

Melinda Griffin Berryman also graduated this spring from Saint Leo earning a degree in criminal justice online. Her motivation was the same as Patricia's: to inspire her children and grandchildren by pursing the degree she had deferred for more than two decades.

"I am the first person in my family to graduate with a high school diploma, and the only one in my family thus far to earn a degree, and I wanted to break this ugly cycle."

Creating legacies

Merriam-Webster defines the word legacy as "a gift" or "something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor."

The full meaning of the word legacy, however, goes beyond Merriam Webster's definition.

A true legacy is more than just a gift of money or property.

It's the effect of that gift – the benefit to future generations – that is the essence of a true legacy.

Set to retire following an 18-year career as president of Saint Leo University, Dr. Arthur F. Kirk, Jr. has created numerous legacies, including the university's Center for Online Learning.

More than a way for busy adults to improve their lives through academically robust online degree programs, Saint Leo's online platform enables students to create legacies of their own – by being examples for younger generations of the value of hard work and persistence and by helping change lives for the better.

Meeting the needs of adult learners: a priority

"Throughout his years at Saint Leo, Dr. Kirk has dedicated himself to ensuring that adult students – regardless of where they live or how busy their lives are – have the opportunity to earn college degrees through online degree programs that are rigorous and relevant in the job market," says Kathryn McFarland, vice president of enrollment and online services.

"He has always empathized with the unique challenges adult students face as they handle family responsibilities and their education and has made it a priority to support online students in every way possible – from academic advising to career guidance. Dr. Kirk's commitment to adult students is the reason why Saint Leo was an early pioneer in online learning, and it's why he continued to push his online vision forward throughout his tenure."

October 1998: A strategic bet

Dr. Kirk had been president of Saint Leo College for barely one year, when he proposed that the university's Board of Trustees make a strategic bet*.

The bet was that a traditional, nonprofit, brick-and-mortar institution founded in 1889 could make a major and dramatic investment in a new and largely unknown marketplace – online education – and succeed.

Saint Leo was an early adapter of online learning, launching into online degree programs even before home Internet access was common. Fulfilling the need of busy working adults for flexible learning, online programs quickly grew from zero students in the fall of 1998 to 310 the next year, surpassing 1,000 students by fall of the year 2000. Three years later, that number more than quadrupled.

But it was not easy.

Nothing worthwhile ever easy

As Dr. Kirk has related over the years, there were myriad challenges: from redeveloping business procedures, to keeping pace with ever-changing technology and adapting teaching practices to be successful in cyberspace. Saint Leo adapted and has continued to adapt over the past decade and a half.

"There is no question that Saint Leo University is financially stronger and academically more agile for having become a 'bricks and clicks' institution," he says, "and that transformation serves our students."

Changing lives through online degree programs

Eighteen years later, countless graduates such as Patricia and Melinda who earned their degrees online are grateful that Saint Leo was an early pioneer of online education.

Jashanda Lemons is another alumna who completed her degree in criminal justice online. She is quick to tell other adults that they can fulfill their dreams of earning a degree even when attending a college campus is not an option.

"Obtaining a degree online is another avenue to reach their goals and realize their dreams. My experience at Saint Leo has dramatically boosted my self-confidence and helped me realize my potential."

Check out the timeline below for some of Saint Leo's major milestones in online education.

* Concept Dr. Kirk attributes to business consultant Ram Charan

Image credits: Digital Storm on Shutterstock; timeline by Creative Influence, Inc.