Guest Column
Community colleges like St. Petersburg College have innovated throughout this pandemic to educate our students | Column
One measure of SPC’s success: The average annual entry-level wage for our recent graduates is $51,248.
The St. Petersburg College downtown campus.
The St. Petersburg College downtown campus. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Apr. 26
Updated Apr. 26

Higher education has traditionally been the fuel that mobilizes communities toward a hopeful future. Community colleges in particular have been historically rooted in the need to remove social and economic barriers to post-secondary education in underserved regions. They are uniquely designed to offer affordable opportunities for students seeking pathways to stable employment.

April is Community College Month, and I want to take this opportunity to celebrate the ability of community colleges to innovate and find creative solutions, particularly following a year wrought with challenges for our students, staff, local businesses and their employees.

Tonjua Williams
Tonjua Williams [ Provided ]

When the pandemic struck, many jobs were lost — some permanently. St. Petersburg College saw an immediate need to retrain the unemployed, furloughed and underemployed. With the help of our business partners and state and federal agencies, SPC was in the prime position to serve as an engine for economic recovery and prosperity in the state.

Our Rapid Credentialing initiative, which provides full-tuition scholarships to eligible applicants, offers short-term training to help people find careers in high-demand industries after losing jobs or income due to COVID-19. In as little as a few weeks, they can earn credentials in one of 22 programs and re-enter the workforce in growing career fields that provide jobs with sustainable wages.

SPC has never been afraid of a challenge. We continue to work with our business, government and community partners to expand access and enrollment in quality, high-value certifications and workforce programs in order to drive our area’s future economic success.

We applaud Gov. Ron DeSantis’ vision to grow the workforce through the “Get There Florida” initiative. Since fall 2020, this program has allowed SPC to award nearly 600 students with more than $430,000 to support their training in regionally in-demand careers such as information technology, allied health, electrical lineworker, public safety and drone technology. Additionally, it’s important to note that many SPC graduates serve as our community’s frontline workers. Annually, the college trains or graduates more than 2,000 emergency personnel including nurses, respiratory therapists, EMTs and paramedics.

While St. Petersburg College has long been at the forefront of online education, beginning virtual classes more than two decades ago, the pandemic pushed us to further reenvision the future of higher ed. We expanded our online offerings and launched a brand-new course format — live, online Zoom classes that provide students a real-time classroom experience no matter their location. With an eye to the future, we continue to invest in our technology infrastructure and reimagine the role and impact of community colleges.

The timing could not be more critical. According to the Strada Education Network, 1.7 million working-age adults in Florida say they intend to enroll in a community or technical college in the next two years. Forty percent of them have a household income under $25,000, whereas the average annual entry-level wage for recent SPC graduates is $51,248 — the highest among Florida community college graduates. The college is ready to help these individuals reskill and upskill through our short-term programs and gain economic prosperity with careers that can increase their annual income by 50 percent.

St. Petersburg College recognizes that the needs of our region and its workforce continue to evolve. At SPC, we aren’t waiting for the world to change. We are busy changing the world and helping our students find success in it.

Tonjua Williams is the president of St. Petersburg College, Florida’s oldest community college. A St. Petersburg native, she holds a doctorate from Barry University in Higher Education Administration with a specialization in Educational Leadership. She serves on the board of the American Association of Community Colleges and is an alumna of the inaugural class of the Aspen Presidential Fellows.