Spotlight on SMC's Nursing Program

If you're thinking of joining the drove of students who have set their career gaze upon the nursing program at Santa Monica College, prepare for a little game of hurry up and wait.

Currently, there are over 400 names on a waitlist for the program. That list is expected to grow as more people return to school seeking careers with perceived job security.

"The numbers have been staggering," said Dr. Ida Danzey, associate dean of Health Sciences. "March 1 opens a new application period, and already we're inundated with students waiting at the door and the phones ringing off the hook…it's overwhelming."

So what's driving the surge of interest in nursing?

"People view nursing as a profession where you can always find a job, and where you can start off with a very nice salary," said Danzey.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) website reports that "a moderate shortage of registered nurses exists" and that the shortage "will continue to grow in severity during the next 20 years."

The bulk of the current RN workforce consists of nurses who are approaching retirement age. That fact, coupled with the aging generation of baby boomers who expect high-quality health care and have the resources to pay for it, equals a renewed need for nurses.

HRSA officials reported that the U.S. "must graduate approximately 90 percent more nurses from U.S. nursing programs" in order to meet the expected demand. Many people of varying ages and backgrounds are responding to the call. However, limited funding and faculty to teach the programs is the primary reason students have to wait.

Second semester nursing student, Michelle Garcia, 25, waited a year and a half to begin after submitting her application. Not content to wait idly, Garcia decided to invest her time in pursuits she felt would help her succeed once the program began.

"I worked full-time to pay off bills and save money," said Garcia. "I also did an internship with the UCLA program Care Extenders."

Garcia said the UCLA internship gave her valuable "experience and confidence to work in a hospital setting." She believed in the program so much that she managed to recruit more than 300 SMC students as volunteers for the program. Garcia encourages future nursing students to take advantage of the exposure offered through Care Extenders.

Third semester student Elizabeth Jermundson reiterated the value of volunteering. "I volunteer in the ER at Cedar's and suggest that anyone interested in a nursing career volunteer at a hospital…it's very humbling."

As intense and demanding as the program has proved to be for her, Jermundson says "not for a second" has she regretted her choice. "It's overwhelming and challenging but I know I'm supposed to be here."

Jermundson knew nursing would be right for her because she gets her "greatest fulfillment from helping others to feel better."

On the SMC nursing website, there is a section titled "How Do I Know If I Want to Become A Nurse?" It asks and answers questions related to specific nursing skills, specialties and salaries.

At a recent information session for prospective nursing students, Valencia Rayford, nursing counselor, advised students to save time by following the sequence outlined at for completing prerequisite courses.

Several prerequisite courses must be satisfied prior to submitting an application and some of those prerequisites have prerequisites. Depending on the situation of the student, Rayford said "It could take 1-2 years or more for the prerequisites alone."

The nursing program itself is a two-year commitment.

"Be aware that it's challenging," says Garcia. "Realize that this will be two years that you're devoting to yourself and don't allow family or friends to emotionally blackmail you."

It saddened Garcia to see some of the students she started the program with drop out early. Along with discipline and organization, having a support system is one factor Garcia feels "can make the difference between a student succeeding or failing."

"Some students don't see the bigger picture and don't realize help is available," said Garcia.

For this reason, Garcia wants all nursing students to be aware of the Student Nurses Association (SNA). It serves as a built-in support system for all nursing students, including those on the waitlist.

Dr. Danzey said the SNA "brings a sense of community by having potlucks and serving as mentors to new students."

"Second semester students serve as mentors to first semester students and it makes the transition smoother," said Garcia. "I hope the new students will reach out and ask for help when they need it."

Besides long waitlists, another marked difference in nursing schools past and present is the active recruitment of male nurses today. Approximately 20 percent of the students enrolled in the program at SMC are male.

Third semester student, Mark Saunders, 51, is one of them. What inspired him to cross the bridge from telecommunications engineer to nurse?

"Actually, it's who – one of my very good friends who got his master's in business at USC went back to school and became an RN," said Saunders. "To me he's the perfect role model of what a male nurse should be…he has a really positive attitude about everything."

Saunders said the essential qualities needed to succeed in the program are "practicing good time-management and being detail-oriented." He remarked that "some men have a problem having a woman as a boss" and added how important it is also to "be comfortable working with mostly women."

Saunders' gender may be a huge advantage for him come graduation time. This great recession has translated to hiring freezes at many urban hospitals. Danzey said that "about 40 percent of the program's 2009 graduates have been hired by local hospitals."

SMC is communicating with local hospitals to determine what special classes to offer in order to increase the new graduates' chances of getting hired. EKG Interpretation and ER Triage are two of them. Danzey said that "nontraditional sites like health care clinics and geriatric facilities" are still employing new graduates.

Other options for new graduates to consider improving their chances include working outside of urban centers and pursuing advanced degrees. "Nursing is still a good choice," said Danzey.