Student uses unique farm experiences as practicum for accelerated, online bachelor's degree program

Kristen Cloutier is turning her unique experiences on farms in the United Kingdom and stateside into a required practicum experience for her bachelor's degree in integrative studies at Grand Valley.

It's one of many examples of how students can customize their degree plan and area of focus when enrolled in the online, accelerated degree program.

Cloutier, from Lansing, left Grand Valley in 2016 after changing her major multiple times and earning more than 100 credits. She worked as a server for two years to save money to travel to the U.K. and work as an apprentice through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

WWOOF has a global database of organic farms with operators who are looking for help, often in exchange for room and board. Cloutier worked at a family farm outside of London and earned extra cash as a restaurant server.

Back at her parents' house in Lansing, she and her dad have started their own organic garden. Cloutier began researching degree programs last winter, and wanting to finish at Grand Valley, she found the online, accelerated program and started conversing with advisor Kate VanDerKolk.

"It was Kate who suggested creating a practicum from the farming experiences," Cloutier said. "There are people who think everyone who goes to college knows what they want to do with their degree, but that's not always the case. It's great that with this program you can create a degree that pulls from experiences."

Melanie Shell-Weiss, associate professor and chair of integrative, religious and intercultural studies, said nearly 50 students completed practicums during the summer.

"Our student group included a dairy farmer, entrepreneurs, media and data specialists, social service workers and artists," Shell-Weiss said. "It's an amazing community for students to share their experiences and benefit from a robust network of faculty, staff and students."

The flexible and customizable degree program allows students to shape a bachelor's degree in integrative studies, while, at the same time, earn a certificate in a high-demand area (leadership, applied data analytics, project management or global communication). Students can choose to enroll in a certificate program only.

Classes run for six weeks. VanDerKolk said the flexibility of the program makes it an ideal program for parents who are at home with their children who are starting school virtually in August. Rolling admission dates mean students can enroll in the program six times a year; the next admissions date is October 28.

"Grand Valley is known as a high-touch institution," Shell-Weiss said. "This program is mostly offered online. Our faculty members are well-positioned to teach these courses digitally, but with high touch. This is not a passive online experience.

"We have teams of trained staff to support each student, including wrap-around advising and a career center. We are here for your success."