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ASU partnership advances nursing education in rural Arizona

Denise Kronsteiner

Stephanie Ford was working full-time on the night shift at a local prison when she started taking the prerequisite courses for Eastern Arizona College’s nursing program. The 25-year-old single mother and full-time student learned to balance her job and school while volunteering two days a week at a local hospice.

After a full day at the prison, which started very early in the morning, she would come home, play with her daughter, make dinner, and then dive into her studies.

“There are days when you feel like you can’t do it, but you remember you’re going to help people, and it keeps you going,” she said.

In May, Ford graduated with her associate degree in nursing from Eastern Arizona College and passed the NCLEX-RN exam. She is also on track to earn her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree next May from Arizona State University's College of Nursing and Health Innovation through Eastern's Arizona College's Concurrent Enrollment Program.

The new CEP program between ASU and Eastern Arizona College in the rural community of Thatcher allows eligible students enrolled in Eastern’s nursing program to pursue their BSN degree from ASU and their associate degree from Eastern concurrently.

Offered in a hybrid format, students learn through face-to-face and online classes taught by dedicated ASU and Eastern faculty from the Gila Valley. When they finish all components of the CEP program at Eastern, students will have earned a baccalaureate degree from ASU.

Ford said she wanted to encourage her daughter, who is now three years old, to follow her dreams. She believes that her influence on her daughter — watching Ford pursue her degree and stay focused on her goals — will teach her never to give up. “I hope she goes to college,” she said.

Ford initially had fears that she wouldn’t have time for nursing school, or that the cost would be too high. She now believes the CEP program, while rigorous, has been a great opportunity.

“The program removes barriers for students,” said Carolyn McCormies, Eastern's nursing program director. “ASU is a great partner to have.”

A graduate of ASU’s original RN-to-MS program, a recipient of the university’s Barbara Browne Connors nursing scholarship, and a board certified nurse practitioner, McCormies understands the value of an ASU education, especially in her role as the director of Eastern’s program.

While costs and other student concerns have always kept McCormies awake at night, the Concurrent Enrollment Program between the two institutions has addressed those concerns, she said.

“We share a standard of excellence, and an insistence upon excellence,” McCormies said. “It’s an amazing opportunity for students to meet their goals in an efficient way.”

Students finish their degrees guided by supportive local instructors from ASU and Eastern in less time than if they had pursued each degree at separate institutions.

McCormies’ personal touch has made a difference in Eastern’s program. She has developed mentorships to help Eastern’s students learn more about the benefits of the CEP program; she has arranged for advanced CEP students to help younger students stay committed; and she hosts barbeques for her students and their families.

That family atmosphere and support proved invaluable during Ford’s third semester. Just before starting block three, Ford’s father died unexpectedly.

“My heart was broken and I was devastated,” she said. “I met with EAC and ASU faculty and they worked with me. I had so much support from both colleges, and I am forever thankful.”

Relationships are important to Eastern’s faculty, students and community members, just as they are with ASU.

When ASU president Michael Crow and Eastern Arizona College president Mark Bryce began discussions about a possible partnership six years ago to make baccalaureate programs available for Eastern’s students, they thought the program should be 100 percent face-to-face.

But Eastern’s nursing students preferred hybrid and online classes because of their busy schedules.

The two institutions and program leaders took the feedback to heart and negotiated the format over time to fit the needs of their students. ASU hired Eastern’s nursing instructors to deliver the ASU courses, each of whom had relationships with Eastern students.

Students take classes in a variety of settings depending on whether the class is an Eastern or ASU course. Eastern’s classes are offered in the clinical setting and the classroom or lab. ASU courses meet in person once a week and online. Both institutions work together to help students succeed.

ASU’s mission as a public state university is to provide access to all students, including those who don’t have the advantage of living in the Phoenix area, said Maria Hesse, vice provost for academic partnerships at ASU.

“We serve the community in partnership, playing to the strengths of both institutions,” she said.

It also helps ASU meet its goals of preparing BSN students to be able to pursue advanced degrees, and meet the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations, said Diann Muzyka, director of the RN-to-BSN program and the Concurrent Enrollment Program at ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

It’s also important that students can find access where it’s financially affordable, Muzyka said.

“We are able to prepare nurses at the baccalaureate level, and help meet the IOM recommendations (80 percent BSN-prepared workforce in place by 2020)," Muzyka said.  “Research shows that patient outcomes are better with nurses who have earned a bachelor’s degree. It’s a benefit to patients and the communities in which we live."

The idea of community got bigger this summer when a small group of nursing students from Eastern’s 2015 CEP cohort had an opportunity to travel to Honduras for a weeklong international community health experience. 

Coordinated by Eastern’s nursing faculty, the students lived with a host family and worked at local clinics.

In the crowded lobby of the Nacaome Valle Hospital where the students did intake and triage, it was over 90 degrees with 80 percent humidity. Patients waited patiently in line for up to three hours and were grateful to see a doctor and walk out with something as simple as ibuprophen or vitamins, said Sara Lemley, CEP nursing faculty.

“During their stay, students were able to better understand and experience a foreign health care system and care for patients alongside Honduran nurses and health care personnel,” Lemley said. 

Stephanie Ford was one of the students.       

“I was struck by how grateful and kind this community was,” Ford said. “I will take the teamwork I learned into my nursing career and have respect for other members of the team because we all bring something to the table, and together we provide effective care.”