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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
July 10, 2007
DeKalb — Summer is never quiet in the Northern Illinois University School of Nursing, where courses are taught year-round to advance the careers of working nurses and to educate more for a profession in desperate need.
But these warm months are proving busier than usual – and residents from Aurora to Elgin and from Freeport to Rockford will reap the benefits.
NIU’s nursing school will admit 120 students this August. The school typically welcomes 70 students in the fall and another 70 in the spring, and even those numbers are higher than the 60-per-semester standard from just two years earlier.
Forty of this fall’s 50 additional students come thanks to a $450,680 grant from the Illinois Board of Higher Education. A new cohort of 40 students will gain admission every two years in a program housed at Aurora’s Provena Mercy Medical Center and Elgin’s Provena Saint Joseph Hospital.
The other 10 are able to enroll based on the generosity of Rockford’s SwedishAmerican Hospital and the Freeport Health Network, which together are providing clinical experience sites and the salary for a master’s degree-prepared nurse who will serve as clinical instructor.
“We’re totally delighted,” said Brigid Lusk, chair of the nursing school inside NIU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. “There is a problem putting enough nurses out there – our financial means are limited – and any help we can get from the community and from the Illinois Board of Higher Education is greatly appreciated.”
The IBHE grant, awarded in February, is part of a $1.5 million allocation established by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the state legislature to expand and improve nursing programs in the state.
It will allow one tenure-track professor and two instructors to join the faculty and will grow the school’s popular RN-to-BS completion program by 20 percent. The grant also develops a Human Patient Simulation (HPS) Laboratory on the DeKalb campus that imitates clinical experiences.
Furthermore, NIU hopes to recruit more minority students from Aurora and Elgin. Senior nursing students from the DeKalb campus will travel to Kane County on a regular basis to provide peer-tutoring, and the school will purchase 40 laptop computers to compensate for the lack of computer labs at the hospitals.
The new suburban students will finish their coursework in two years by taking classes through the summers and intersession periods. Applications are still being accepted.
“We will house these 40 students at Provena Mercy,” Lusk said. “They’ll take all their theory lectures there. They’ll do their labs there – they’re even setting up a mini-lab for us out there – and will have some of their clinical experiences there. We’re really appreciative of the support from the people at Mercy Provena.”
NIU’s professors will drive to Provena Mercy to teach, Lusk said.
The presence of nursing faculty in the hospital will “add to the already present level of clinical excellence we deliver,” said Deann Edgers, coordinator of clinical education for Provena Mercy.
“Any time you expose a higher level of education, you obviously challenge others in that facility to think outside the box and be more creative in what they’re doing,” Edgers said. “We’re extremely excited, and to have students from this area just makes it that much more special and that much more personal. We’re cultivating and growing people from our neighborhood to a profession we all know and love.”
Edgers hopes the 40 students in the cohort will choose Provena Mercy as their eventual workplace – “Brand-new graduates in any institution always elevate that level of expertise a notch,” she said – but also wants the partnership to raise awareness of nursing.
“To bring a nursing program a little closer to home, so the distance is not so great, just shows our community that nursing is a reasonable career to look to and is supported in our area,” she said. “And we’re putting 40 more nurses out there in the workforce! Whether they’re 40 who come to us or they’re 40 in the workforce in general, this is wonderful.”
Some travel is required for the one-time-only cohort of Freeport and Rockford students.
“They’ll have their theory classes with our regularly enrolled students here in DeKalb. They’ll just have their clinical experiences in the Rockford and Freeport area,” Lusk said. “Every hospital is short of nurses, and their aim is to help us produce more nurses. They would also like it if some of these nurses would continue to work at their hospitals.”
Administrators of SwedishAmerican Hospital agree with those assessments and even add another to the list of good reasons to partner with NIU: Research has shown that the level of education a nurse receives has a direct, positive impact on patient care.
Meanwhile, they say, the nursing shortage is compounded by a second problem.
Hospitals must balance a higher percentage of baby boomer nurses approaching retirement with new nursing school graduates who typically are older than their classmates and therefore won’t stay in the workforce as long as nurses from previous generations.
“We want to maximize our opportunity to keep talent in our community,” said Sue Driscoll, vice president for patient care services. “Once they go away to school, sometimes they are drawn to their first job in Chicago and don’t always see the opportunities within their community.”
“There are students who live in the northwest region of Illinois, and this would give them an opportunity to not only go to school at NIU but to be able to do all of their clinical rotations within institutions here in northern Illinois,” added Carol Swenson, director of regional clinical education. “They also receive an increased familiarity with our health care institutions.”
Sharon Summers, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Freeport Health Network, said her hospital also is doing all it can to brace for the worst of the nursing shortage.
“Partnering in this endeavor will give us access to a very highly reputable quality product – that being the nurse that NIU graduates,” Summers said.
“Knock on wood, we’ve been very successful. Our vacancy rate has been well below 4 or 5 percent the last two or three years, and compared to the national average of 14 percent, we feel very fortunate,” Summers said. “But we have an aging nursing population with an average age of 48 or 49. Couple that with the shortage going forward, and we see the need that we’ve got to be more proactive.”
Like Edgers, Summers expects the presence of academia inside the hospital will motivate staff to raise the expertise of those around them.
“We’ve had a couple other different relationships of an academic nature. Once you get that environment established in your hospital then everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon,” she said.
“When that first nurse gets her diploma or certification and says, ‘Wow, I really didn’t think I could do this,’ and realizes the knowledge she has gained and the confidence she has in herself, that is in and of itself the best marketing tool to get nurses to go back to school.”
An improved patient-to-staff ratio at SwedishAmerican also allows staff members to spend more time with students, Driscoll said. Meanwhile, close reading of student evaluations helps the hospital choose the most appropriate staff to serve as mentors.
“It’s an opportunity for our staff to share their expertise and their skills – to display what they do and how they do it,” Swenson said. “And some things they take for granted – their everyday work – they find is of great interest to those new students who are seeing something for the first time. There’s positive stimulation to all sides.”
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