But just three years ago, as the first class assembled at the college in what would be named the Integrated Nursing Pathway – which merged two institutions and one program – it was difficult to envision it becoming groundbreaking in nursing education.
No, not when the first group or “cohort” treated each class in classroom 218 at Lowry as much as survivalists as students.
“It was freezing,” Nancy Case, CCA’s former Dean of Health Sciences, recalled of those early days. “The students used to come in sweatshirts, and gloves, and hats. But it kept them awake.”
In hindsight, the freeze out could have been Case’s unstated mission to ensure that this new group of learners, joining a new enterprise by leaps of faith, paid close attention to the curriculum, designed to ultimately lead to a bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado College of Nursing.
“I’m sure they suspected that,” Case added with a chuckle.
The temperatures only seemed to serve to move the original 18 within the cohort even closer. They already learned to lean on one another to succeed. So, huddling for warmth really wasn’t much of a stretch.
Many in this first pioneering group remain strongly bonded together as graduation approaches this spring. There are 13 students left from the original group finishing their nursing studies at the CU College of Nursing at Anschutz Medical Campus while augmenting their education with clinical rotations around the metro area.
Some of the old CCA gang still participates in small study groups together. The entire group is connected via social media through Facebook. All remain friendly even while, for some, saying, ‘Hi,’ is more the norm as their academics reach their most intense level.
“All the other students who were in the Pathway program, I don’t know where I’d be today without all of them,” said Steven Martin, a 46-year-old member of the 2010 CCA/CU cohort who spent nearly eight years plotting his exit from sales jobs and his entrance into the nursing profession.
“I don’t come to tears much but I think when my graduation day comes, I’ll be thinking of all the fellow students who were there for me. That was really huge – having that team. And we knew we were blazing a trail.”
Case warmly labeled the first class “guinea pigs” at the first class as it moved toward an associates degree in General Studies on their way through their current academic experience at CU’s College of Nursing, with its accompanying four-year degree.
But the cohort clearly preferred another means of description.
“They’d say, ‘No,’” Case recalled. “We’re pathfinders.”
“So we knew when we designed the Pathway program, we had to do something that capitalized on associate degree education but did not allow graduates to go to work as a registered nurse, because that’s when we lose them to the educational system.”
Thus, the Integrated Nursing Pathway model was formulated, which included simultaneous admission, dual advising and early introduction to the nursing profession to CCA and CU’s College of Nursing.
The initial two-year period required completion of an associates degree but with a General Studies – not a Nursing -- emphasis. Health professions coursework laid a foundation to CU College of Nursing and was a critical, two-class component in the curriculum at CCA.
And, by foregoing an associates in Nursing as an option, Community College of Aurora ensured students couldn’t simply get licensed and enter the workforce in the field straightaway.
Academic prerequisites were embedded into the coursework to help ease students into the next step.
“We’re really introducing them to what nursing education is going to be and to help them with the transition to the College of Nursing, where the caliber of expectation and learning represents the rigor required for nursing,” said Jennifer Vander Meer, who joined CCA as Director of Health Sciences this past summer following Case’s retirement.
“They’re full-time over there and it’s rigorous and plain hard. You’ve got the clinical side, too, over there that you have to manage. So, our part is really to introduce them to nursing and to get them to think like a nurse.”
Discussions on forging such a working bond between the two colleges had been percolating for years between Pat Moritz, a former CU College of Nursing dean, and Linda Bowman, president emeritus of CCA. Weekly discussions had been ongoing between the two institutions since January 2009. Case was hired by CCA as the dean of Health Sciences after several months as a consultant in July.
“One of my colleagues, Gayle Preheim, (director of the baccalaureate program) at the University has always said we were laying the tracks and driving the train at the same time, and that’s a very apt analogy, because we barely finished the curriculum at the end of April, had three maybe four weeks of an admissions process that was being developed as we went, accepted the class, signed up the faculty, created the courses and continued to solidify the program itself. We weren’t done by any means,” Case said.
Yet the goal behind the idea was ironclad, that patient outcomes are better when the nursing workforce is highly educated. An Institute of Medicine nursing report only reinforced that notion and demonstrated the program was on the right track. That study called for 80 percent of those employed in the profession nationwide by 2020 to possess a bachelor’s degree or above.
The agreement with CU outlined for CCA that a maximum of 30 students could comprise a nursing cohort. Agreements with five large clinical partners ensured those placements would be accommodated without taking away opportunities from CU’s existing student population.
The concept was tweaked to include admissions, faculty and curriculum into a truly joint program. “We just kept hammering at it,” Case recalled.
And a win-win proposition emanated.
CCA at the same time could boast degree ‘completers,’ a driving force among community colleges, while CU received a boon to its diversity both at the institutional level and within a profession that is sorely lacking in that regard. University Hospital’s move to Aurora and the Anschutz Campus only solidified the idea.
The Integrated Nursing Pathway model had never been done in the country in exactly this fashion. The collaboration between CCA and CU continues to be unique since it does not include an associate’s degree in Nursing but gets students directly to a Bachelor’s of Science in the subject.
Bridget Rager, another member of the first CCA cohort, said she was probably one of the first people to sign up because she had heard about the program and was waiting for it to come to fruition.
An excitement filled the room the first time the group finally met in a classroom setting.
“You could just feel it,” Rager noted. “Everybody really wanted this and we were finally going to start.”
“You’re missing Denise,” Rager chimed in. “And M.J. …"
Tsion, Keisha and Beverly, too.
It may be harder for current cohort students to get even this close, now that the program is beginning to hit full steam. The second CCA group swelled to 25, with 19 remaining. The current third class filled the maximum 30 spots.
There’s momentum, surely, built upon the early planning that turned into the initial foundational pieces. The memorandum of understanding between CCA and CU limits the program participants due to the intense competition for clinical site placements. There are limited clinical slots in the Denver metro area and the Pathway students are competing with all of the nursing students across the state.
“But if they see some of the success of completing this many baccalaureate students, increasing diversity in nursing, doing all those things, maybe the model of bringing them from a community college setting is one we have to expand,” Vander Meer said.
At CCA, the goal is engaging potential students interested in the program as soon as possible so they get on track right away and into the prerequisites to prepare for the Pathway.
At CU, the first cohort is simply trying to survive a few more months before they can realize their dreams.Rager started a family and a business before life finally allowed her to take a step towards achieving her lifelong goal. Martin is ecstatic to take after his inspirational mother, a nurse herself.
“If my heart’s right with serving others and that’s my goal, then everything else falls into place,” he said.
Rager’s clinical rotation at a rehabilitation hospital, and working with families, making care plans and checking medications only served to reinforce her decision to attend CCA after a three-decade break in schooling and begin her path into nursing. Her initial resolve has only strengthened over time.
“I just think all of us are just really grateful and excited and we all can’t wait for graduation,” she said. “We’re all talking about it, ‘We’re close. We’re close,’ because the course work is tough. It’s doable but it’s a lot of work.
“And we’re ready to go out there and be professional nurses.”
Photo caption: Steven Martin and Bridget Rager will be part of CCA's first cohort that will graduate as part of the Integrated Nursing Pathway in collaboration with the University of Colorado.