02/18/2013 05:05 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2013

Adult Higher Education: Bridging Your Past to Your Future

I love my job.

As part of The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a Chicago-based higher education non-profit, I help people achieve their dreams. For the last two and a half years, my team has worked to build and market a new education technology called Like most small startups, we are constantly re-crafting our tools, our messages and who we work with. But what I really love is helping people get excited about their next career. I have the unique privilege of connecting with real people to encourage them to find their passion, challenge them to take risks, and help them pursue the next iteration of themselves.

Here's an example. Joy (not her real name), 42, recently told me about the great experience she had earning required college credit. After 20 years as a police officer, she is fulfilling her "Bucket List" and enrolling in college, online, at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). While discussing her job experience, her advisor recommended that she consider the "portfolio method" of earning college credit. Joy went for it, and created a portfolio documenting her learning from her work experience. She earned six credits in Justice Studies without taking a class.

After just 18 months of classes at SNHU, Joy decided to major in English Literature. Even working full-time and raising a family, her enthusiasm for her goals is palpable. Charged with the energy of learning, Joy is ready to take on the career world a second time. She says she loves being in school again, because it is different now: it's much more rewarding.

The portfolio Joy is so excited about was created by using She took a portfolio development course offered at SHNU (also offered online at, to understand how to document her learning on the job. She simply wrote about her experiences from the perspective of outcomes. She distilled her work as a police officer into a learning narrative to prove she had already learned (i.e., "experienced") the outcomes for the required courses. For many students like Joy, who have worked for more than 10 years, the reward is not only the college credit, but the sense of accomplishment and pride from seeing all that knowledge cumulate in the portfolio.

In today's challenging job market, there are many things to be frustrated about. Certainly unemployment. But there are also millions of Americans with jobs who feel stuck. Some have hit the "parchment ceiling" and cannot advance in their careers without first earning a college degree. Going back to school may seem like a costly way to eat up free time, but it could be a ticket to a whole new life. When you combine real life skills and experience that bridge your past to your future, you can see a new life ahead. That helps brighten your future with opportunities worth pursuing.

This is what makes me say "I love my job" -- I get to be a part of that process. Learning does count, but helping people succeed counts a whole lot more.

Sara Zalek is an Associate Director of Marketing and Communications at CAEL. She has been a key player in the development of since its initial launch in 2010 and now focuses on marketing strategies and new media. Sara has degrees from both Syracuse University and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She can be reached at