By any measure, Beth Mortonson has succeeded in her chosen career path of sleep medicine, but like many professionals who manage to overcome an early “incomplete” to climb the ladder of success, she longed for an opportunity to go back to school.

Mortonson attended Contra Costa College, then called Diablo Valley College, for about two years in the late 1970s before carving out a upward trending career path, starting out as a night tech, becoming a registered Polysomnographic Technologist, earning her certification in clinical sleep health and ascending to manager of the Asante Rogue Regional Sleep Center, where she’s responsible for the daily operations of a 10-bed sleep lab.

But something always bugged her.

“I’ve really gone a long way without having a college degree — I mean, I’ve done really well,” she said. “But I’ve just always felt like I really want my bachelor’s degree. ... And then Asante posted this announcement about the Innovation and Leadership (INL) program at SOU, and my stomach did a flip-flop and I was like, 'I have got to do this.'”

Southern Oregon University’s Innovation and Leadership program is an accelerated bachelor’s degree completion program for working professionals, and it’s not for everybody. It’s for people who have one to two years of previous college experience, at least five years of work experience beyond entry level and “a desire to lead, innovate, collaborate, and think” creatively. The two-page application also requires a maximum 500-word essay explaining how the INL program “relates to your career goals, and how your prior work and educational experience will contribute to a rich learning environment in the classroom.”

That all sounded like a slam dunk for Mortonson, 57, as did the accelerated class schedule — students take classes in five-week modules, allowing them to complete each major’s 16 courses in only 21 months. Also, classes are in person, not online, one night a week in Medford.

That last detail was particularly attractive to Mortonson, who had no desire to attend an informal, online class.

Still, as someone who hadn’t sat through a college lecture in 30-plus years, she was apprehensive to sit down with SOU’s INL coordinator Moneeka Settles.

“And poor Moneeka,” Mortonson said of that meeting. “I had a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face when we first met, but she talked me through it. She was talking to me about having to take statistics, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I could never do that.’ And I just got a B-plus in it. … I was afraid I wasn’t smart enough.”

She was.

Mortonson decided to take a couple classes at Rogue Community College first during the 2015-16 school year to test her college readiness, and when she passed with “A’s” she decided to go for it, starting last fall.

Now halfway through the program, Mortonson’s on pace to graduate in June 2018.

So far, she’s loved everything about INL, including the fact that students stick with the same cohort throughout (“now, we’re like a family” she says), only have to meet once a week and can research topics with far more efficiency than was possible during her first college go-round — surfing the web, she laughs, is far quicker than scanning through endless rolls of microfilm.

Also, she added, she’s already benefitting from the courses she’s taking, which has included classes such as Working with Emotional Intelligence, Organizational Communication, Group Dynamics and International Business of Health Care.

“Every single class I take I get some sort of nugget of knowledge that I can apply directly to my job right now,” Mortonson said. “I manage 18 people, and I learned a lot in the emotional intelligence class and then I was able to pass that on to my leads for them to disseminate and to learn. And I’m giving all my staff an emotional intelligence book and beginning to work with them through that.”

Most exciting for Mortonson is her capstone project, for which she’s examining whether patients with obstructive sleep apnea are more likely to use continuous positive airway pressure devices if they work first with clinical sleep educators. For those who suffer from sleep apnea and are willing to use them, CPAP masks basically hold open their airway so they can sleep and breathe at the same time.

CPAP masks are the “gold standard” of sleep apnea treatment, Mortonson says, but many people who suffer from sleep apnea hate the masks and don’t use them. Mortonson would like to see that change.

“I’m really hoping to complete this research as part of my INL capstone and also make a difference for my patients, to benefit them,” she said. “This has been my passion for a couple years now. I just presented the research protocol to the physician group and they’re in support of it. The Health Alliance of Southern Oregon is in support of it, the administration of Asante’s in support. It’s a cool thing. So think about a diabetes educator — what they are for is diabetes education and helping patients and supporting them. That’s what a clinical sleep educator does. They come alongside and help them with their treatment so that they’ll get better, and the INL program is helping me to do that.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.