Island's new nursing program graduates first class
After months of juggling family life, jobs, classes, clinical rotations, and homework, nine students in the inaugural class of the Island's first practical nurse program celebrated their graduation last Friday night with tearful moments of solemnity that gave way to whoops of pure joy.
About 100 family members, friends, and community members gathered at the Tabernacle at Oak Bluffs for the commencement exercises, some traveling great distances to be there for the special occasion.
Ranging in age from 21 to 56, the nine graduates, eight women and one man, successfully completed a 10-month practical nurse program offered through Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School (UCCRTS).
As employees of Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and Martha's Vineyard Hospital, the tuition-free program provided them with an opportunity for educational advancement on the Island that many of them thought would never be possible, because of cost, time, and travel. Windemere served as the Martha's Vineyard campus, with additional classroom space provided at the regional high school.
Wearing white gowns and apricot tassels on their mortarboards, traditional for nursing majors, the nine graduates processed to the stage to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance," played by pianist Phil Dietterich. Class representative Gail Stevenson led everyone in singing "America the Beautiful."
"I am truly humbled to stand before you, knowing how hard you worked to earn your place on this stage and your place in your new profession," said Patricia Gales, director of the UCCRTS practical nurse program. "You've just begun the most important job of your life - as you look back at the end of each of your work days, know that you have made a difference."
UCCRTS nursing instructor Deborah Herlihy volunteered to teach on the Vineyard, even though it meant being away from her home in Plymouth during the week. Ms. Gales thanked her for giving "her heart and soul to the program," and also thanked Ms. Herlihy's husband Michael and border collie "Runner," who were both in the audience, for their sacrifices.
Describing the collaborative efforts it took to bring the Island nursing program to fruition, Windemere administrator Ken Chisholm said, "It truly took a village to make it happen." He told the graduates, "We are thrilled that soon we will be seeing you at our nursing home and the hospital taking care of our Island residents." Quoting journalist Tim Russert, who recently died, Mr. Chisholm added, "Go get 'em!"
Photos by Ralph Stewart
With shouts of "Yea, Mom," from her three children, student Elizabeth Jones took to the podium to offer the class's reflections. "What a journey - what a ride - there were extreme highs and lows," she said. "We started out strangers and ended up family. We are honored, proud, and grateful for this opportunity."
Looking out at her 17 family members in the audience, including her Mom from California, Ms. Jones said, "Without their support and sacrifice, none of this would have been possible."
Calling Ms. Herlihy "our mentor, our rock, our teacher, and our inspiration," Ms. Jones gave her a bracelet from the class designed with nine pieces of sea glass to represent the students and one pink, heart-shaped piece of sea glass to represent their instructor, from A.E. Kirkpatrick Jewelry Design.
Penny Blackwell, chair of the UCCR vocational-technical school district committee, presented the graduates with their diplomas. She, too, spoke of being humbled by the students and the sacrifices they made to further their education while juggling family and jobs.
Ms. Herlihy then presented the graduates with their nursing pins. Unique to the UCCRTS nursing program, the design depicts the Cape Cod Canal and the Bourne and Sagamore bridges.
In keeping with a tradition dating back to the middle ages, Ms. Herlihy and the students took part in a candle-lighting ceremony. Explaining the symbolism, Ms. Gale said, "We pass the flame of knowledge on to our graduates, with the lit candle representing their new knowledge, their new hope, and their new profession."
Two students received special recognition, Ms. Jones for outstanding clinical achievement, and Nina Perez Gomez for outstanding academic achievement with a 3.90 grade-point average. At the graduation's conclusion, the new nurses left the stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
Although shocked to receive special recognition, Ms. Jones was already looking towards the future and said she might go on to become a registered nurse. "The program was a great opportunity - I would have had to quit my job in order to go to school," she said.
When asked how it felt to graduate, Ms. Gomez said, "This is actually the beginning." The single mother of two children said she was grateful that everything came together, and that it would be nice to have her life back again. In addition to her mother, who traveled from the Philippines to attend her graduation, several of her family members came from Chicago.
The graduates can take their state board exams in early July and become LPNs once they pass. Ms. Herlihy said the students already took a practice test and that five had received scores of 93 percent or higher.
In a follow-up call this week, Ms. Herlihy said she thought the most difficult aspect of the nursing program was its continual intensity. "The students would have an exam that would take up the first hour of class time, and then I'd have to say, open your books, and it's on to the next section for the next several hours," she said.
In addition to classes and clinical rotations on Martha's Vineyard, the nursing students went off-Island for clinical rotations once a week for 12 weeks. And, unlike many college students, most of them had to work during their holiday, winter, and spring breaks, Ms. Herlihy pointed out.
"They were tired at the end," Ms. Herlihy said. "I'll never have another class like that. They were so dedicated and kept plugging away. They never gave up -I know they felt like it sometimes, but they didn't."
By working part-time or per diem at Windemere or Martha's Vineyard Hospital, the nine students in the practical nurse program were eligible for free tuition if they committed to working two years at either institution once they become LPNs.
The idea for an LPN program on the Island grew out of efforts to staff Windemere and Martha's Vineyard Hospital. Four years ago, Mr. Chisholm was seeking a way to reduce Windemere's reliance on contract LPNs brought to work from off-Island. He also hoped to offer educational advancement for employees unable to attend school on the mainland and to provide a nursing career path for Island high school graduates who want to remain on the Vineyard.
Dr. Lorna Andrade and Al Daniels at the Nathan Mayhew Seminars helped Mr. Chisholm look for a program and funding. A $105,000 workforce training grant received from the state's Department of Workforce Development last year enabled Windemere to bring an LPN program to the Island, which UCCRTS agreed to run.
As part of the workforce training grant's match requirement, Windemere paid the housing costs for Ms. Herlihy, maintained benefits for the students, and provided paid time off for them from their jobs to attend classes.
Windemere has applied for another one-year grant and will receive notification about it on July 16. "We have ten students lined up and ready to go for next year's program," Mr. Chisholm said. Ms. Herlihy plans to return as the instructor.