EastBay Today

Posted June 6, 2017

Healthy Reputation

Cal State East Bay's Concord nursing program supports the workforce of the region

First-year nursing student Andrea Davis puts her bedside manner to test in Cal State East Bay's Concord nursing simulation lab.

In a quiet corner on the Cal State East Bay Concord campus, a mock hospital room is bustling with nursing students. One tends to an injured patient in bed — actually an animatronic robot named Mary Sim, age 82, who is suffering from a hip fracture — while another comforts a distraught “family” member seated nearby and yet another preps the medication and supplies needed to support the patient.

The classroom is a simulation lab — a hands-on, collaborative learning space that is training ground for Contra Costa County’s nurses of tomorrow.

“Because many of our employees are Cal State East Bay students, it is rewarding to watch them grow and reach their personal and professional goals,” says Roxanne Holm, nurse educator at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. [They] are very hard-working … and consistently step forward to help out our staff with a positive attitude.”

 But the quality of care Cal State East Bay students come to represent goes even further, according to Department of  Nursing Chair Lynn Van Hofwegen. In addition to technical skills, the program’s curriculum requires professors to teach the latest technology and best practices of the profession.

“Students are learning this very complicated profession and with time it’s becoming more complicated — patients are sicker, it’s more high tech with things like electronic charting, and nurses are being asked to make many decisions they haven’t had to previously,” she says. “We need to teach our students to be able to act and think at the highest level.”

Meeting a Need

Started in 2006 after local hospitals such as John Muir approached Cal State East Bay about their  need for more nurses, the Concord campus currently hosts half of the university’s four-year nursing program, about 350 students. The two programs at Cal State East Bay are highly competitive, with more than 950 students vying for 126 spots each year.

As a result, the students helping Patient Robot (its name and gender change based on the simulation scenario) are high achievers with an average GPA of 3.8. Ninety percent pass their board exams the first time, according to Van Hofwegen.

“The Concord area and Contra Costa County in general is expanding and there are a lot of different needs our students are meeting,” Van Hofwegen says. “Some of our communities are middle class while others have pockets where people are really struggling. To have this program helping this community is essential. Without this workforce, it would be hard.”

Holm says the students and graduates are also a reflection of the community they serve. 

The animatronic robot students simulate patient scenarios with in the Cal State East Bay nursing lab is physiologically complex, helping them gain hands-on experience in the classroom.

“There are a lot of students who are local and represent the diversity of their community,” she says. “A lot of people have grown up here and they want to work and give back to their communities and the people they’ve grown up alongside. I think it’s really cool, and gives them a sense of pride.”

The students who graduate from the Concord nursing program are both male and female, ethnically diverse and range in age from students right out of high school to grandmothers looking to start a second or even third career. But almost all find employment immediately after graduation, a fact Van Hofwegen attributes to the high demand for Cal State East Bay graduates, and the partnerships she and others have created with local hospitals.

“Each year, the students are taking on a different level of learning in the classroom, but they’re also working in the hospitals so by the end of their time here, they’ve been in many different facilities and are really well acquainted with the clinics and staff that would be hiring them.” 

It also means they have years of relevant experience.

Hands-On Learning

Back in the classroom at Concord, many of the scenarios in the simulation lab are real-life examples, set up by professors who are also practicing nurses.

“[The simulation lab] gives us a chance to practice in a controlled setting that’s still similar to what we’ll be doing when we graduate and go into the workplace,” says first-year student Andrea Davis.

“You go into the hospitals around here and you see Cal State East Bay nurses everywhere.”

Lecturer Arya Habib, a 2009 graduate of the Concord nursing program, is a nurse in Walnut Creek and says she often uses the problems she’s experiencing at work to help students in the classroom become familiar with the challenges they’ll soon face.

“I’m able to give them real-life, real-world scenarios, and I can provide my own experience because I’m still out in the field,” she says.

Similarly, Debra Murelli is a graduate of the Concord campus’ nursing program and she recently returned there to begin teaching. She says through the practicums at area clinics and hospitals, her students are learning not just the technical skills needed for nursing, but how to meet people “where they are” and work with high-needs populations.

“The students are working with [the same] nurses they’d work with after graduation and at the hospitals they’d be working at,” Murelli says. “They’re passing medications, doing injections, all the necessary skills that we’re teaching them on campus, they’re able to go out in the field and practice. You can’t put a value on that.”

Close to Home

Nursing program faculty says the popularity of the Concord program at Cal State East Bay may have something to do with its proximity to other aspects of students’ lives, such as family and children, and most of them will stay in the area after graduation.

“You go into the hospitals around here and you see Cal State East Bay nurses everywhere,” Murelli says. “I think people who live in these communities will tend to go to school here and stay in the area both because that’s where they live, but [because] nursing also gives them a chance to give back to their own community.”

Holm says she’s also heard from students that say Cal State East Bay’s program is not just close, it’s economical.

“It’s affordable and I know there are some people who will stay on the waitlist forever because they like the reputation, and the affordability piece is huge for the high quality of education.”

Looking forward, the Concord campus is in the process of starting a two-year master's program in fall 2018. The new degree is in response to a survey distributed to more than 1,000 alumni and friends of the nursing program, where 95 percent of respondents reported they would have rather stayed at Cal State East Bay for graduate school but had to go elsewhere because the university didn’t offer a program. In addition, Van Hofwegen says she and others hope to continue partnering with more clinical sites, especially those that serve vulnerable populations like Head Start and Meals on Wheels.  

For Murelli, she hopes to continue imparting a sense of gratitude to her students and show them the joy that can come from working as a nurse. 

“I think it’s really important for students going into nursing to realize what an honor it is to care for people and how important it is for them to an advocate for people who sometimes can’t or don’t want to speak for themselves,” she says. “As a nurse, you build a trust with your patients and I want that to start now so the students go into their career knowing that.”