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Flagship programs chart academic course

Nutrition flagship
It’s the University of North Florida’s most heralded academic program designation.

The Flagship title, which is shared by six select undergraduate and graduate programs, carries with it an air of University-wide significance and legitimacy that the campus community — and the entire region — can’t help but notice.

Each of the first four designated Flagship Programs — Nursing, Coastal Biology, International Business and Transportation and Logistics — is eminently successful in its respective field and features graduates who have achieved distinct levels of local and national prominence.

UNF nursing students are assigned to every single hospital in the city and are helping to boost Jacksonville’s continually growing bioscience industry, which employs one in five people locally.

Nurse anesthetists who graduated from UNF are there with patients when they enter surgery at most Jacksonville hospitals, and they’re there to greet them once they wake after the operation. The program’s doctoral graduates who have gone on to teach across the country have also helped grow the program’s prominence far beyond Northeast Florida.

Graduates from the GlobalMBA, Ibero-AmericanMBA and Global EntrepreneurshipMBA programs are subjected to rigorous international business study in the classroom, but they’re encouraged to study abroad and ply their trades while only having to pay UNF tuition.

Students in the Transportation and Logistics Flagship are taught in one of the most top-of-the-line university labs in the nation using advanced software that will ultimately boost their job skills and vastly increase their employability.

Coastal Biology professors use the region’s unique natural landscape, including the vast St. Johns River, as the hub for groundbreaking research that students can experience firsthand.

And the directors of both of the new Flagship Programs designated in July — Dr. Gordon Brock from the Department of Music and Dr. Judith Rodriguez from the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics — are steadily planning the next steps for their distinguished departments.

“We take the Flagship designation seriously,” said UNF President John Delaney. “Our Flagship committee mulls over the Flagship applications thoroughly and only offers its recommendation if it knows a program is ready for that next step. Both of these programs are undoubtedly ready for that next step.”

Taking the next step

The UNF programs that have garnered Flagship status vary greatly in size and scholarly focus, but they share one major commonality — each could stand up favorably to similar programs at some of the nation’s top-tier universities.

That ability to produce particularly compelling or exceptional educational outcomes for students allows them to link the quality of education at UNF to a range of civic needs in the region.

For this reason, Flagship Programs are selected to receive significant budgetary support — about $2.5 million — for five years, with the possibility of further, albeit reduced, support after that. The funds can be used to hire new faculty, purchase new research equipment or fund Transformational Learning Opportunities.

The goal is simple — keep improving until each program is inextricably linked to the national conversation in its own field.

“When people hear UNF, they’re going to think about all the great things we have to offer,” Brock said. “And when they think about UNF, we want the Department of Music to be on the tip of their tongue. Maybe they’ve seen our students performing locally and were blown away. Maybe they saw one of our distinguished faculty playing somewhere across the country or the globe. Or maybe it was just through word of mouth. But the point is this — when they hear UNF, they will think excellence.”

Hands-on learning

The first goal for each of UNF’s new Flagships is building up each program’s already considerable slate of hands-on and community-based learning opportunities.

That’s what first drew in Andre Washington, a UNF senior and seasoned cellist. He said his decision to choose UNF was easy. He was hooked when he heard about the amount of interaction he’d have with his professors and all the opportunities he would have to perform.

“The size of the school gives students the opportunity for more attention from the professors and more performance opportunities,” Washington said. “Having that as a music major gives UNF a big advantage over larger schools. Only the top players would receive that opportunity elsewhere. It’s a tremendous value because it makes you better. And that’s what we’re all here for.”

He said his music professors have shown their dedication by investing time in their students. On some weeks, Washington received two lessons with his cello professor, Dr. Nick Curry, even though students are only guaranteed one lesson per week.

“The professors are always willing to give extra help if we're willing to work for it. I have also had individual attention if I didn't understand the material in my other music classes, or just had questions. I could catch the professors in their office, or even in the hallways. I am very happy for the time they give to me and the hands-on learning opportunities I’ve been granted here.”

Learning by performing

Nowhere is that style of hands-on learning more apparent than when UNF music students take the stage at world-renowned venues.

Almost 50 of the University’s most accomplished woodwind, brass, and percussion players took the stage in April at New York City’s famed Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, receiving considerable critical acclaim. That performance came two years after the Wind Symphony performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, arguably the most revered concert venue in the world.

Brock, who conducted the symphony during both performances, said the continued support of the University has allowed them to secure performances in such rarified spaces. And the continued monetary support through the Flagship designation will allow them to supplement faculty salaries, actively recruit gifted students from across the country and the globe and market the program far and wide.

Simply put, the performance opportunities will get even better.

“There’s one thing you know when you come to UNF and experience the Department of Music — it’s that you’re going to get your chance to take the stage,” Brock said. “There are few comparable programs with the type of respect we’ve garnered over the years that have so many hands-on learning opportunities for students or the type of faculty access we do. And in a field, such as music, where it’s all about hands-on everything, the experience they receive for their money is unmatched. I guarantee each and every one of the students who performed at the Carnegie or the Lincoln Center will remember that experience the rest of their lives, whether or not they even stay in the field. It’s priceless.”

Haruka Kobayashi said the encouragement she’s received from her professors has been worth its weight in gold.

The Japanese violinist and transfer student said she was a little shy about performing when she first moved to Jacksonville to further her music education. That didn’t last long.

She won the American String Teacher Association’s Florida chapter string competition last year and was chosen as concertmaster for the Texas Music Festival this summer in Houston. She’ll perform Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 3,” a challenging and lengthy piece that stretches across 90 minutes and multiple movements.

“I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do something like that before I came to Florida,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot and become more confident. My teachers and all the performances I’ve been a part of have helped me become a better musician.

Kobayashi’s main instructor, Dr. Simon Shiao, is also conductor of the UNF string ensemble. He said Kobayashi’s considerable talents have been a welcome addition to the ensemble, and her insights and perspective bring an international flair to the entire program.

“The program is known far and wide — well outside the boundaries of Jacksonville or Florida,” Shiao said. “It's been amazing the see the growth of UNF in just the last nine years that I have been here. Seeing the university attract outstanding students from Florida and other states, as well as international students like Haruka, reaffirms the quality of our faculty and the unique destination UNF provides for these students. Without a doubt, these interactions between all of our music students — national and international — make for a positive and rich learning experience for all involved.”

Opening the door to internships

Rodriguez echoed Brock’s resolve to build the Flagship program through hands-on learning. She said access to career jump-starting internships is a key for students who want to ensure job placement upon graduation. Thus, her focus is for the department to offer as many internships as possible, whether they’re in Jacksonville or across the country.

That interest in transformational, community-based education was the driving force behind the University’s recent partnership with The Girls Scouts of Gateway Council and The Boselli Foundation. Faculty and students helped develop a series of lessons on health and nutrition for at-risk students participating in programs sponsored by these agencies.

The Boselli Foundation, founded in 2007 by former Jacksonville Jaguar player Tony Boselli and his wife Angi, is a non-profit organization striving to help children living in at-risk neighborhoods. It helps provide children with limited financial resources a holistic, comprehensive, after-school learning environment.

That’s where UNF comes in. The Department of Nutrition and Dietetics’ “Powerful Kids Rock” program encompasses six one-hour lessons presented by upper-level students to different city agencies, including the Boselli Foundation, multiple times throughout the year.

“We’re honored to be working with UNF’s Nutrition and Dietetics program,” Boselli said. “Our goal is the same — make life better for young people. The students who’ve contributed to the program are knowledgeable, skilled and just really dedicated to the cause of helping others. They’re a testament to the program and to the school.”

Increasing prominence

The “Powerful Kids Rock” program is the type of hands-on learning experience that employers will immediately look at when considering job candidates, Rodriguez said. And in such a hyper-competitive job market, she said it’s imperative to equip her students with as many opportunities to boost their resumes as possible.

“Right now, we’re about making our students the most qualified potential employees to enter the market,” she said.

About half of her nutrition students receive internship placements, a number which she attributes to a dearth of openings locally.

“We’ve done such a good job getting our students placed in internships in Northeast Florida that there’s a glut of internship seekers looking at the same time,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a good thing, but it’s a bad thing at the same time because we’ve so well satisfied the need of the region. So we’re going to focus on building our reach with the additional Flagship support. We’d like to extend to the point where we have established internship connections across the country. We’re getting there with all the grads we have spreading out across the country, but this is something we’re going to put a lot of energy into.”

Pursuing new degrees

Each of the new Flagship programs has its own long-term plan to build toward the future. Rodriguez said she’s looking to grow her faculty with a few targeted hires. She said she’s looking for advanced and specialty practice dietetic practitioners at the master’s and doctoral levels who have tremendous experience in the field. And the program’s coursework will evolve right along with the faculty. She’s discussing ways to convert the current master’s coursework to distance-learning formats in order to provide additional pathways to advanced practice for registered dieticians across the country. Many registered dietitians are recommended to obtain either a master’s degree or specialty certification within five years of receiving their credentials, and Rodriguez said she wants to position UNF’s new Flagship as a national go-to location for those classes.

The major long-term goal is to add a doctoral program in clinical nutrition and build up the department’s master’s offerings.

“The Flagship designation is making it possible for us to achieve a sustainable clinical doctoral program and expanded master’s program that provide the advanced and specialty practice that is needed to continue the high standards and national recognition we’ve already established for the current program,” Rodriguez said.

Music will follow a similar growth pattern of adding new, distinguished faculty and using their expertise to help usher in new graduate programs.

Brock said that process is starting with the introduction of a minor program in music business and technology. That coursework will train students for a wide variety of careers in the music industry and provide skills and work experience to make them more competitive and employable, he said. The minor will also be open to all UNF students, encouraging a broader range of students to explore career options in music.

“We’re more than just classical or jazz music,” Brock said. “We’re a diverse, thriving program, and that’s reflected in our course catalog. It’s becoming apparent to people across the country — UNF’s music program offers the full experience.”

Receiving recognition

It’s that continuing excellence among its Flagship programs that has hoisted the University into the upper echelon of the nation’s academic community.

Want proof? Just take a look at all the awards the University has racked up from some prestigious college-rating groups.

UNF recently garnered six national awards from Forbes Magazine and The Princeton Review — some for the value of its education and others for the strength of its curriculum — that place it favorably in the state and national university conversation.

Also, UNF received the 2010 Community Engagement Classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in recognition of the University’s exceptional commitment to community engagement.

UNF is among 115 institutions to be added to the classification this year, bringing the total to 311 since 2006, and is the only Northeast Florida institution of higher education to receive this prestigious designation.

And with the addition of two new Flagship programs, Delaney said UNF’s future undoubtedly includes more accolades and national recognition. The new Flagships will play a key role in the University’s evolution, he said.

“When we granted the Flagship designation to our music and nutrition departments, we had already identified them as programs with strong regional and national recognition,” he said. “Now, we’re taking the next step and showing what they can do with the addition of more resources. We want everyone to know — UNF isn’t just good in a number of areas, we’re one of the best.”