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Siena Heights, LMC mark 40 years of partnership

Gaston Leoni spent 15 years as a journeyman toolmaker when he decided he needed to make a change.

"There were some ups and downs in the economy, and I was looking for other opportunities," he said. "I had gotten my associate degree from Lake Michigan College through an apprenticeship program, and I knew I could finish my bachelor's degree in Benton Harbor through Siena Heights. Not only did they take all my LMC credits, but I was also credited for my work experience. It only took me about a year and a half to complete my bachelor's degree, which opened many more opportunities."

Leoni, now a project manager at Edgewater Automation, is one of nearly 2,000 students to earn either a bachelor's or master's degree through Siena Heights University's Campus Center at Lake Michigan College – a partnership celebrating 40 years this month.

Lake Michigan College was the first community college in Michigan to partner with Siena Heights. Now, the Adrian-based university has seven such centers at community colleges across the state.

"We are so excited to be celebrating 40 years of partnership with Lake Michigan College," Siena Heights President Sister Peg Albert said. "Our collaboration provides a pathway to additional opportunities in higher education for students to reach their academic and career goals while saving time and money. We are so grateful to Lake Michigan College for partnering with Siena Heights University in a way that is meaningful to our students and our region."

The partnership began in 1982 when Siena Heights' Norman Bukwaz championed creating a bachelor's degree program to complement community colleges' associate degrees in applied science.

"An associate in applied science is a technical focused degree," said LeAnn Krokker, Senior Associate Director of Graduate and Professional Enrollment at Siena Heights. "Traditionally, students were told those credits would never transfer to a four-year school. But with a bachelor's degree in applied science, someone can get an associate degree in welding, culinary arts, or any number of things. If they decide to get a bachelor's degree, they can come back, and all the credit from their associate degree will be accepted."

Today, 45 percent of students from the Siena Heights Benton Harbor Campus Center at LMC graduate with a bachelor's degree in applied science. The university also offers bachelor's degrees in business, community and human services, professional communication, public service administration, and multidisciplinary studies. Master's degrees include business administration (MBA), organizational leadership, healthcare leadership, higher education leadership, clinical mental health counseling, and nursing leadership.

"One of the reasons this partnership has been so successful is that we take a hard look at what LMC is doing and what we are offering and continue to adapt," said Paget Clark, Siena Heights' Senior Assistant Director of Professional Enrollment. "We offer a space with hands-on advising, which makes a big difference. Students can come into my office at LMC, meet me, and get a real person, a real face, to talk to."

Krokker added that another critical component to the partnership's continued success is Siena Heights' 3 + 1 program. Students can transfer up to 90 credits from LMC to Siena Heights, leaving just 30 credits to finish a bachelor's degree program.

"The true beauty for students is that the first three years are on the community college tuition rate, so it saves peoples thousands of dollars in tuition," Krokker said. "Many four-year universities will say we don't care how many credits you have to transfer; you must do 60 with us. We don't do that."

Siena Heights also offers credit for military experience, professional certification or licensure, and in cases like Leoni, work experience.

"The credit from LMC was a great help," said Leoni, who graduated from Siena Heights in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in applied science. "I spent a lot of time on those courses. Once you get into the work environment, you also learn many things. Having Siena Heights recognize that and give credit for it was huge. With my kids being young, I didn't want to spend another three years attending college."

Siena Heights offers flexible class schedules. Since the pandemic, most of those classes are now online. Traditionally, the program has provided in-person classes at LMC on evenings and weekends, all taught by Siena Heights faculty.

"They really cater to the non-traditional student," LMC and Siena Heights graduate Christin Adams said. "All my classes were in the evening. I could fit three or four classes into my week, and I still had weekends. It wasn't cumbersome. It was set up so you could succeed in life and college."

Adams, who earned a master's degree in social work from Western Michigan University, owns a counseling practice. After finishing her associate degree at LMC, she began taking classes at Siena Heights, earning a bachelor's degree in community and human services in 2006.

"There was no red tape,” she said. “There was no calling 10 people. There was no tracking down transcripts. All my LMC credits transferred, and that's when you realize you are so close, which really set me up for success. It gave me hope. It provided me a way."

Leoni, who hadn't stepped into a classroom for 15 years before returning to Siena Heights, hopes others in the community will be inspired by his experience to do the same thing.

"I know there are a lot of people in the workforce who feel kind of stuck," he said. "They didn't go to college, or they didn't finish. You may have a family and a job, but you can make this work. I am proof of that. If you want more and apply yourself, it is certainly within reach."


Edgewater Automation project manager Gaston Leoni is one of nearly 2,000 students to earn a degree through Siena Heights University's Campus Center at Lake Michigan College – a partnership celebrating 40 years this month. 

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Jeremy D. Bonfiglio
Marketing & Communications Specialist
Lake Michigan College
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