Traditional nursing program attracts non-traditional students

For the first time in over 40 years, St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua is teaching students to become registered nurses.

An associate of science in nursing program opened this fall with 15 students at the School of Nursing at St. Joseph Academic Center.

The program has a long history, dating back to 1908 when the hospital first opened. The school’s first class of RNs — four in all — graduated in 1910. The program continued until 1963, when it was closed in favor of a licensed practical nursing, or LPN, program.

“We reopened our associate degree program because of the changing needs in health care and our community,” said Barbara Provencher, director of academic affairs. “More RNs are needed, especially in acute care. Part of the shortage is that there is a lack of faculty to teach them.”

For much of modern nursing’s history, students were fresh from high school. Today, the students in St. Joseph’s program are older, well-educated and some have worked in other professions, such as in the computer industry, before embarking in on a new career in nursing.

“The class is very diverse, coming from a broad range of professional and cultural backgrounds. The average age is 31. Some already have bachelor’s degrees,” said Provencher.

The five-semester associate degree program includes 1,500 credit hours consisting of 750 hours of theory class, 630 hours of clinical experience and 120 hours of clinical laboratory.

Once students successfully complete the program, they are eligible to take the registered nurse licensing examination in New Hampshire and other states.

The associate degree program has been granted temporary approval by the New Hampshire Postsecondary Education Commission and the New Hampshire Board of Nursing. Accreditation is currently being sought through the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission in 2007.

The league requires at least one class to graduate from the program before gauging its success. This provides the accreditation commission data (e.g., program completion licensing exam passage statistics) with which to review the program.

Once the program has been accredited, the first class will be grandfathered under the accreditation.

The program is not inexpensive — a semester runs about $4,000 plus other expenses, such as books — some financial aid is available for those who qualify.

“Once the program has been accredited by the NLN, more financial aid programs will be available,” said Provencher.

Catherine Pere is a licensed nurse’s aide in Massachusetts who said she is pursuing her degree in nursing to obtain “a deeper understanding of the medical field as a registered nurse. The associate degree RN program at St. Joseph School of Nursing fits into my schedule and my home life.”

Wife and mother of three, Nancy Dogil, 34, said she was looking for a program that would fit her hectic schedule as well. She was accepted into another institution when the program was cut a month before she was to enter, she said.

“There are not enough quality programs for people who want to become registered nurses,” said Dogil.

Provencher said that what a “traditional” hospital-based program offers over an academic-based one is the availability of a clinical site where fledging nurses can learn and practice their skills.

“This program is supported by St. Joseph Hospital. We have a rich history of education, and education is part of our mission,” she said.

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