When Ellie Edrissi returned to school to study occupational therapy, she enrolled in an entry-level doctoral program — one of five in the world — at Nova Southeastern University in Tampa. ¶ But the Los Angeles resident, who started her studies in May, didn't move to Florida to attend classes at the private, not-for-profit college. ¶ Instead, Edrissi takes most of her courses online from her California home, flying into Tampa once a month to participate in a four-day "institute'' for hands-on instruction and training. ¶ "Why give up my life here when I can take classes there?'' she said.
Ni "Annie'' He-Strocchio of Tampa enrolled in the same program as a convenient way to work around her life as a wife, mother of two, and full-time patient relations representative for a local health care agency.
"I do my homework after the kids go to bed, and I study pretty much the whole weekend,'' said the 31-year-old Wharton High and University of South Florida graduate.
Both women are what Nova Southeastern describes as "hybrid'' students, blending their studies online and in a formal classroom setting.
Some of the school's programs, like speech pathology, are entirely online through videoconferencing.
"We're nontraditional here,'' said Racquel Khuri, director of the university's Tampa Education Center, one of six in Florida and an offshoot of the school's main campus in Fort Lauderdale.
Online learning is a growing trend in education, especially at the college level, with at least three-quarters of the nation's colleges and universities offering classes online, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey.
Nova is a leader in the effort, Khuri said, designing programs using a work-life balance philosophy.
"We're providing opportunities for those who want to stay home, who want to go back to school or finish their degree,'' she said. "For the working adult.''
The Tampa center is open daily with students from around the world taking classes from early morning to midnight.
"There tends to be a misconception that online classes are not "real'' school," said occupational therapy student Kristin McMillen, 30, of Orlando. "But Nova's (occupational therapy degree) program is a very rigorous, full-time academic program.
"And because we only see our professors once a month . . . we actually have a more challenging workload than students in traditional face-to-face programs.''
Of the 1,200 students enrolled in Tampa, most are between 28 and 35 years old, and most are graduate-level students seeking masters' degrees, Khuri said.
About a third of the students participate in programs that offer courses online as well as on campus, she said, with another third working solely online, and the remaining students in a traditional setting.
For many, like McMillen, a former elementary school teacher, the flexibility, for the most part, was a big factor in choosing Nova.
The Tampa center is a six-story 81,500-square-foot building in the Sabal Park business complex near Interstate 4. Inside are administrative offices, classrooms, student lounges, Wi-Fi — almost everything you'd expect at a college, except dorms.
There are some surprises, though, like access to the state's largest library system, the 325,000-square-foot Alvin Sherman Library in Fort Lauderdale. There are also videoconferencing suites and state-of-the-art simulation labs for the school's hot health-tech programs, including cardiovascular sonography and anesthesiologist assistant.
The latter features two fully functional operating rooms outfitted with, among other equipment, giant $35,000 touch screens to help instructors monitor students and $150,000 mannequins that breathe, bleed, even cry.
In the world of technology, "you can't have old equipment,'' said Robert Wagner, program director and associate chairman of the university's Department of Health Science.
The Tampa anesthesiologist assistant program began in 2009 and is one of nine in the country, Wagner said. Tuition for the 2012-13 school year is $34,660.
All 20 students who graduated in August had jobs waiting for them, Wagner said. "Demand is very high."
Nova's dual cardiovascular sonography program is the only one of its kind, said Samuel Yoders, an assistant professor and program director. Other schools make students choose one track or the other, he said.
The 27-month program has 14 students, who will learn to detect diseases by checking heart and blood vessels. Tuition for the current school year is $19,125 for the bachelor's program and $20,710 for the master's program.
Eighteen students, mostly women, make up the new class of the entry-level doctor of occupational therapy, led by Ricardo Carrasco. They must have at least a bachelor's degree to be accepted, but the accelerated doctoral program puts them on the fast track for a career that is among the top 15 fastest-growing and 25 best-paying for graduates 20 to 29 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Already, the program, which takes three and a half years to complete and includes clinical work, is proving popular, Carrasco said. He turned away 22 students. However, the commitment to the program, especially with online coursework and tests, can be challenging.
"Students have to be totally structured,'' he said. "We encourage them not to work.''
Edrissi, of Los Angeles, works part-time as a volunteer. She worried at first about the setup.
"I was initially intimidated,'' said the first-year student, who earned a bachelor's degree in sociology five years ago the traditional way — sitting in a classroom at the University of Miami.
Her fears quickly disappeared when she learned of the school's round-the-clock help desk.
"I've used it several times,'' Edrissi said, recalling many nights when it was 11 p.m. her time and 2 a.m. in Florida. "Someone was always there, picking up the phone to help me.''
Although out-of-state tuition is the same as in-state, Lillian Freeman and her husband moved from Toledo, Ohio, to St. Petersburg earlier this year to take part in the same program. University officials conducted her interview via Skype.
She loves using all the technology, but "traveling back and forth every month was definitely not a financial option,'' said Freeman, 23, who works part-time at Publix.
Juggling home life, work and school is tough, she said.
But Freeman, who wants to help people with spinal cord injuries, sees the experience as a great lesson in time management and leadership skills — something, she said, "that will be required of us when we enter the profession.''
Sherri Ackerman can be reached at [email protected]