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First CEP nursing graduates making a difference during pandemic

Adorned with their Upper Iowa University stoles and Northeast Iowa Community College pins, the first three graduates of the UIU/NICC Concurrent Enrollment Program for nursing (l-r) Morgan Bohr ‘20, Madelyn Monroe ‘20 and Jill Starrett ’20 are pictured following this past spring’s NICC pinning ceremony.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on many celebrations in 2020, but in no way did it lessen the importance of commemorating lifetime events and achievements. With the graduation this past spring of the first students in the Upper Iowa University/Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) Concurrent Enrollment Program (CEP) for nursing, three freshly anointed alumni leaped into a strange new world of health care.

The three graduates — Morgan Bohr ’20, Madelyn Monroe ’20 and Jill Starrett ’20 — viewed the pandemic’s grip on higher education with a unique perspective. Their paths diverged from their fellow graduates soon after the University’s first virtual commencement ended. After all, these first three CEP nursing graduates, all with promising futures, were heading to the front lines of health care during a pandemic.

“These graduates are the culmination of an academic partnership designed to prepare new baccalaureate nurses to meet the everchanging demands of regulatory and practice environments in health care systems,” said Christa Steffens, UIU associate professor/director of nursing. “They are also a perfect demonstration of what can result from a combination of hard work, dedication and perseverance.”

UIU and NICC signed a memorandum of understanding in 2016 that created the nursing CEP, which was the first agreement of its kind in the state of Iowa. The agreement allows NICC students to complete a four-year degree in nursing from UIU. While completing a two-year associate degree in nursing at the NICC Calmar or Peosta, Iowa, campuses, students in the CEP cohort are concurrently enrolled in Upper Iowa University courses toward their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.

This concurrent enrollment program means that students who graduate with their associate degree from NICC will attend Upper Iowa University online for approximately six to eight additional months to complete their BSN degree. A consortium agreement of this nature also maximizes financial aid to each student’s benefit. The overall cost of education for CEP students tends to be less than that of 2+2 programs, and Upper Iowa University tuition for this program is free of extra fees, such as technology, health or lab fees.

Meet the graduates
Morgan Bohr is currently employed as a registered nurse (RN) on the general pediatrics floor at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. Her interest in nursing first emerged in middle school in her native Calmar, Iowa.

“I decided I wanted to be a voice for the ones that couldn’t speak up, help those who cannot move to do so, heal the broken, comfort the grieving, and restore compassion and empathy to the suffering,” Bohr said. “I am a patient advocate, and that is what I love about nursing. I enjoy working with kids the most. They are vulnerable, innocent and deserve the best possible care and outcome one could receive, and it’s an honor to provide that.”

Well informed of NICC’s successful nursing program and its partnerships with area clinical sites, Bohr began her journey to pursue her life’s passion in her hometown.

“NICC’s program challenges nursing students to manage their time, prioritize their education and build their nursing knowledge and clinical decision-making skills based off of caring for the patient’s holistic self,” Bohr said. “NICC has one of the few programs that emphasize education in mental health and require students to spend a month of in-patient psych clinic rotation to help students gain therapeutic communication skills with one of the world’s most underserved patient populations today.”

Bohr chose to participate in the CEP and transfer to UIU because of the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree within six months of graduating with her associate degree in nursing in December 2019. Completely online, the program’s eight-week courses help students complete their required credits with fewer increments of material to focus on at once. In addition, she praised the financial aid staff for helping her navigate tuition payments to both schools.

“UIU also offered a study abroad opportunity in London to online students,” Bohr noted. “I was able to go there for a week, learn about England’s history of nursing, its practices in medicine and how its health care system differs from the United States. Studying abroad provided me both a cultural and educational experience in health care that I would not have otherwise enjoyed.”

Bohr acknowledges that as she started her career, COVID-19 quickly introduced her to many of the same challenges that others in the health care field are facing today, including nursing shortages and subsequent burnout — juggling 12.5-hour shifts that at times turn into 14-15 hours. It’s become routine during the pandemic for her and coworkers to neglect their own needs while caring for patients.

“My biggest challenge as a new graduate nurse was the harsh reality I was practicing in a national nursing shortage during a global pandemic, one of which I wouldn’t wish upon any nurse, let alone a new graduate,” the 23-year-old said. “I have learned to be more flexible, be open to new knowledge and trust the infectious disease specialists in our hospitals, as they are the experts. Most importantly, I have learned how to smile with my eyes when wearing a mask.”

During the most difficult times, Bohr looks back on how her UIU education enhanced her clinical decision-making skills, therapeutic communication with staff and patients, how she prioritizes time management and her understanding of the pathophysiology of the human body.

“My Upper Iowa degree has opened many doors to the future for me as a manager, supervisor or director of nursing,” Bohr said. “It will not only lead me to a higher salary someday, but also allow me to pursue another stepping stone to my educational path and earn my doctorate of nursing practice.”

Madelyn Monroe had the opportunity to first earn concurrent enrollment credits at NICC while still attending South Winneshiek High School in Calmar, Iowa. This partnership heightened her interest in obtaining a nursing degree at NICC before leading to her participation in the UIU/NICC concurrent nursing enrollment program.

“My dad went to nursing school, and that had a great impact on my career decision,” Monroe said. “But I also had a lifetime interest in health care and helping others, especially the pediatric population. It is a passion of mine and what better way to do that than becoming a nurse.”

The Ossian, Iowa, native attended NICC and soon discovered that it had many similarities with UIU, both in and out of the classroom. Both feature a close-knit, rural campus community with an abundant amount of academic and financial resources readily available for their students. Faculty and staff are friendly and interested in the academic and lifetime achievements of all students.

“I would highly encourage other nursing students to participate in this concurrent enrollment program,” Monroe said. “Each class was structured similarly so it made it easier to complete coursework. The program definitely allowed me to complete my bachelor’s degree in a shorter amount of time, and I am greatly honored to be among the first group of students to graduate from it.”

The 22-year-old UIU alumna followed her passion after graduation and now is working as a pediatric home health nurse in Rochester, Minnesota.

“My UIU education has broadened my knowledge in the nursing world, especially the behind-the-scenes work of nursing,” Monroe closed. “It will continue to benefit me when it comes time to further my career.”

Jill Starrett, 44, is currently an RN at Good Samaritan Society in West Union, Iowa. She chose to attend NICC’s Calmar campus because of the nursing program’s reputation, affordability and its proximity to her family’s West Union home. Starrett earned her associate degree in nursing in 2019. A native of Elizabethville, Pennsylvania, she also possesses a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Starrett had left the job market for a few years to be home more with her husband, Adam, and the couple’s three children. When she attempted to return to the workforce, she had a difficult time finding meaningful employment. As a nontraditional student, Starrett knew the longer she waited, the less likely she would return to school.

“I have always been interested in science and medicine and wanted a job where I could make a difference in people’s lives, so I decided to become a nurse,” Starrett said. “Since the UIU program was all online, it allowed me more flexibility in my schedule. UIU also accepted many of my previous bachelor’s degree credits. As a result, I only had to take an average of two classes per semester at UIU while working on my degrees at NICC and graduating with a BSN in only a semester and a half after earning my associate degree.”

Similar to Bohr, Starrett enjoyed sharing the same classroom, clinical struggles and rewards with her classmates while attending NICC. She is equally appreciative of her UIU education, learning about evidence-based practices and quality improvements that are valuable to her as a nurse.

“Living in the time of COVID is like living in an evidence-based experiment,” Starrett said. “We learn new information about COVID every day, and we have to shift how we do things to provide better quality care and protection for our patients. Staffs are stretched thin, and I feel a great sense of pride and loyalty to all who are getting the work done. I enjoy the fast-paced, challenging environment of nursing, helping people and making a difference in their lives.

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