SFSC Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) program recently was granted continuing accreditation from the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc. (ACEN). Continuing ACEN accreditation has been granted through spring 2026–for eight years, the maximum number of years allowed. The ADN program was initially granted accreditation in 2013. SFSC offers the only nationally accredited nursing program in its service district of Highlands, Hardee, and DeSoto counties.

Notification of SFSC’s ADN program continuing accreditation came to Mary von Merveldt, director of nursing education, in a letter from ACEN Chief Executive Officer Marsal P. Stoll, congratulating SFSC on its achievement. The continuing accreditation comes as the result of an intense, three-day visit to SFSC in January by three ACEN program evaluators.

In nursing education, ACEN is one of three accrediting bodies in the country that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The others are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA).

ACEN accreditation is a mark of distinction, certifying that a nursing program adheres to the highest national standards of education. To become accredited, nursing programs must demonstrate that the program meets ACEN’s exacting standards of quality through an extensive review. As a result, students who graduate from ACEN-accredited institutions are more readily accepted into other advanced degree nursing programs and have broader employment opportunities—nationally and internationally. “Some employers, such as the Veterans Administration, only hire nurses who come from accredited programs,” said Dr. Michele Heston, dean of health sciences at SFSC.

“This accreditation assures everyone that we offer a quality nursing program,” von Merveldt said. “It helps to ensure that SFSC Nursing meets the same quality standards as other accredited nursing programs—in regards to curriculum, faculty, and access to student resources.”

Another benefit to accreditation is that SFSC has greater opportunities to apply for grants that might be used to fund resources such as equipment for its teaching labs. “When completing an application, the granting institution wants to know if your nursing program is nationally accredited,” Dr. Heston said. “If not, you won’t be considered for the grant.”

In its final report on SFSC’s ADN program, the ACEN evaluators praised the program’s strength in these areas:

  • The “caring influence reaches far beyond the classroom and is felt by this College and the community.”
  • “It is refreshing to know that there is a two-year RN program in your community that is not only doing excellent work, but is doing stellar work.”
  • “Your graduates articulate the Seven C’s of Caring: Competence, Compassion, Confidence, Culture, Conscience, Commitment, and Communication, upon which your curriculum is based.”

The evaluators also commended SFSC for its innovative D.U.C.K. program, its signature faculty/student mentoring program that embraces the motto: Developing Understanding, Compassion, and Knowledge.

Of particular note is that the average National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) pass rate of SFSC’s ADN students last year was 100 percent, a rate exceeding the national average of 84.4 percent. The job placement rate for the nursing students was 100 percent over that same period.

“Many individuals contributed to this accreditation process,” von Merveldt said. “It’s been a College-wide and community-wide effort—we had the support of the nursing department, faculty, administration, and other departments within the College as well as our advisory committee. Our community partners provided feedback in support our work that was so valued by the department and recognized by program evaluators.”

SFSC’s licensed practical nursing to associate degree in nursing transition program was launched in 1984. In response to community need, the College established a traditional associate degree in nursing program in 1993.

SFSC currently offers an online Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, a two-year generic associate in nursing degree program, a one-year transition licensed practical nurse to registered nurse program, and an 11-month practical nursing occupational certificate. For more information about these programs, call 863-784-7131 or visit southflorida.edu.

These nursing programs are among several Health Sciences programs offered by SFSC and include dental hygiene, dental assisting, radiography, paramedic, and emergency medical technician.

ACEN is responsible for the specialized accreditation of nursing education programs, both postsecondary and higher degree, which offers a certificate, a diploma, or a recognized professional degree (clinical doctorate, master’s/post-master’s certificate, baccalaureate, associate, diploma, and practical). For more about ACEN, visit acenursing.org.

Jazmin Caton

Jazmin Caton, an SFSC alumna and the first person in her family to graduate with an advanced degree, will be awarded her doctorate in Higher Education Administration and Policy from the University of Florida (UF) when she walks across the stage in Gainesville on Friday, Aug. 10. It’s been a long road to a doctorate but each step was made with intention. 

Caton’s inspiration to attend college came from her family. “Education was always a priority in terms of expectations that my parents and family set for me and I adopted that for myself,” Caton said. “Going to college was always the goal from early on.” 

In a fourth grade class for gifted students at Sun ‘n Lake Elementary School, Caton’s teacher challenged the students with a project on genealogy. For the project, Caton was required to interview family members and then write a reflective piece on her personal life goals. “I said that when I grew up, I was going to have a doctorate in education and open a school,” she said. “I’ve accomplished one of those two goals.”  

For Caton, the decision to attend SFSC was easy, and her father’s influence was apparent. “I remember walking the College’s Highlands Campus on Take Your Daughters to Work Day with my dad, Eddie Cuencas, a program specialist with SFSC’s Panther Youth Partners. Just like other people whose parents work at or attend a particular college or university, SFSC was like that for me. SFSC was never a Plan B or second option. It was my first choice for college.”  

In fact, while still a student at Sebring High School, she began participating in the College’s dual enrollment program that allowed her to take classes that apply toward high school and college graduation requirements. 

But Caton’s early studies didn’t focus on a degree in higher education. Rather, she set her sights on public relations and strategic communications, a decision she made while in high school. “For this decision, I credit Jeff Cantwell, a Sebring High School journalism teacher and yearbook adviser,” she said. “I was yearbook editor-in-chief at Sebring High School. Mr. Cantwell helped me identify the skills I had in building relationships quickly and taught me the value of effective communications. As a yearbook staff member, at that time, we were doing some cutting edge things, like completely creating our own design for the yearbook pages. So I felt empowered with what I was already doing and for what I had a natural affinity for.” 

After receiving her Associate in Arts degree from SFSC, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Public Relations from the University of Florida in 2009. Her decision to immediately enter a graduate program came from her active involvement in the student community at UF. 

As an undergraduate, Caton served as an orientation leader at UF as well as a peer mentor and student leader for the program that offered her a housing scholarship—the Southern Scholarship Foundation. “The Foundation operates 27 houses throughout Florida, and I lived in one of their houses on the UF campus,” she said. “Students are charged with managing the houses they’re living in. They do the finances and take care of everyday living needs of a home, such as cleaning and maintenance. I served as house manager, and now sit on the board of directors for the Foundation.” 

While Caton was an undergraduate, she decided to make the leap from public relations to working toward a Master of Science in Family and Child Sciences from Florida State University (FSU).

“I was involved in student orientation activities at UF and working 20 hours a week in a communications job,” she said. “I took an internship for the UF Alumni Association and an internship with the development director at the Southern Scholarship Foundation. So, while I was working on my bachelor’s degree, I was getting real world experience.”  

“Through that process, I learned that I have a natural affinity for the work of public relations specialists—seeking out and cultivating relationships to disseminate information about organizations,” she said. “But I wanted to gain more expertise in a discipline. I was drawn to non-profit organizations and programs that help people. I wanted to be able to become an expert in human development.” 

She then entered graduate school at Florida State University (FSU). At FSU, a faculty member approached Caton with an opportunity to work for the FSU Autism Institute on a research project. After six months on the project, Caton was offered a job as a full-time employee. “It was a grassroots program and hadn’t been operating long. We made major gains in research funding and communication awareness to identify key messages. The State of Florida started paying more attention to us. My experience there helped me understand unique aspects of human development—why people are who they are and why they become who they become. And I was able to use my skill set in strategic communications—taking messages from our research and communicating them to the appropriate audiences.”  

“When working from research, one of the greatest challenges is providing the results of that research to the people who need it most,” Caton said. “That’s universal to almost any discipline. That was most challenging. Facing that challenge influenced me to want to be a leader in the administration of programs and projects that have critical information and services to offer people who need them most.”  

Caton sees the doctorate as a convergence of her knowledge base in human development and her skill set in strategic communications. “I was chasing opportunities to lead others and provide management and coaching. Receiving a doctorate in higher education administration was what felt like the landing place for those goals I was trying to reach. I felt that being in an institution of higher education or a support program of higher education was how to get to the goal of helping people in the way that has great return for them and the community.” 

Caton has taken her passion for human development and communications beyond the academic world. She plans to rewrite her doctoral dissertation for a new audience. It’s titled, “They Already Have So Many Labels: Defining Homelessness in the Context of Higher Education” and it focuses on homelessness among college students. “A recent study showed that 14 percent of community college students and 9 percent of university student are homeless,” Caton said. “My purpose was to explore the issue more specific to higher education—taking a closer look at how students and institutions understand, define, and support this issue of homelessness within this context.”  

Further, she and a colleague are working on a research project that explores childcare access within the community college system and the U.S. Department of Labor’s initiatives to increase access for students who are responsible for children. “Our case study will explore the implementation of this initiative and what these programs look like two years after receiving funding. We’re looking at practices at institutions that are promising for students who need access to child care. Lack of adequate child care can be a barrier to the completion of a parent’s education and a hindrance to their children’s future education as well.” 

As a means of giving back to the Highlands County community and the high school they graduated from, Caton and her husband, Tyler, created a $500 annual scholarship that is awarded to two Sebring High School swim team seniors. The Catons attribute their success to their involvement with the swim team and the leadership of Tyler’s mother, Patricia J. Caton, who they honor for her work as a teacher, coach, and mother. Caton said, “This is one of the many ways we are building a legacy of giving.” 

Caton offers prospective college students this advice: “Life doesn’t stop when you register for classes. You have to face the hard things outside of the classroom. Give yourself some grace and embrace the reality of life inside and outside the classroom. Leverage that to push yourself forward. Surround yourself with a community of people who don’t let you get away with negative self-talk, much like my husband has done for me. Surround yourself with family, friends, kids, and Jesus.”

Lee Cockerell

SFSC will welcome former Walt Disney World® Executive Vice President of Operations Lee Cockerell at its annual Convocation on Monday, Aug. 13. Cockerell will speak about the importance of customer service and leadership throughout all areas of business.

“We are extremely fortunate to have Mr. Cockerell join us for Convocation,” said Dr. Thomas C. Leitzel, president of SFSC. “He is impressive and inspiring. His delivery style is engaging and the message he provides will be meaningful, relevant, and memorable as it comes from his many years of shaping the guest experience at nearby Walt Disney World.”

At Disney, Cockerell led a team of 40,000 cast members and managed the operations of 20 resort hotels, four theme parks, two water parks, a shopping and entertainment plaza, and the ESPN sports and recreation complex. He established a legacy of service training through Disney Great Leader Strategies, which he created to educate and develop 7,000 leaders throughout Walt Disney World. Prior to arriving at Disney to open Disneyland Paris in 1990, Cockerell held hospitality positions for Hilton Hotels and the Marriott Corporation.

Currently, Cockerell travels the globe speaking about leadership, management, and service excellence. He has written several books based on his professional experience, including “Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney” and “The Customer Rules: The 39 Essential Rules for Delivering Sensational Service.”

With Convocation signifying the beginning of the 2018-19 academic year, SFSC employees will enjoy Cockerell’s presentation and book signing, along with departmental meetings, training, and staff awards. All SFSC campus locations will be closed from 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Aug. 13 for Convocation.

The fall term begins on Friday, Aug. 17 and registration is still open. Visit southflorida.edu for more information.