Jessica Barnes loves her job as a registered nurse at the Joseph Maxwell Cleland Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur, Georgia. The 2021 Associate Degree Nursing Flex graduate says Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College (OCtech) prepared her well for working in the center’s fast-paced emergency room.
“Being an RN is a lot of responsibility, but it’s also rewarding,” Barnes said. “You’re able to educate patients. I feel like a lot of the reasons people come to the ER are for things that could have been prevented had they known what to do.”
OCtech’s associate-degree nursing program (ADN) has a history of producing some of the best nurses in South Carolina. Healthcare employers statewide actively seek them for their level of skill and care.
Designated as a Predominately Black Institution, OCtech’s ADN program demographics have not always reflected those of the college or community it serves. In 2015, only 19% of its ADN graduates were minority students, even though the majority of the college’s students are Black females.
That year, OCtech took a major step toward increasing the number of minority students accepted into – and graduating from – the highly competitive ADN program. Administrators saw a growing need for alternative course options that took into account changing circumstances. Students needed schedules that allowed them to provide for their families while preparing for more lucrative, rewarding career opportunities as registered nurses.
Fit into a busy schedule
OCtech’s three-semester ADN Flex program is a model for “when life gets in the way,” according to the college. It incorporates classroom capture technology, online learning, course remediation and flexible scheduling to mitigate challenges like work, illness or lack of childcare.
To enroll, students must be a graduate of an accredited program and licensed practical nurse (LPN). They must attend in-person classes on campus one day a week and participate in weekend clinicals. Simulation technology is used to challenge students in a safe setting.
Barnes, a 2017 graduate of OCtech’s practical nursing program, was working as an LPN at PruittHealth in Orangeburg when she returned to the college to pursue her RN certification.
Within a few months, the married mother of one was pregnant with twins. She continued to work at least two 12-hour shifts a week between going to class, studying for tests and attending weekend clinicals.
“I had a life outside of school that I had to tend to,” she said. “I had obstetrician appointments, and I ended up with preeclampsia. It was a big deal,” Barnes said. “But you have to want this. One of my instructors used to say, ‘A little a day goes a long, long way,’ and that’s so true. You really have to study every day. You cannot skip a beat.”
Her dedication paid off. She was named top honor graduate in her class and passed the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses her first time. Her twins were born a few weeks later.
A big boost
Since the ADN Flex program’s inception, OCtech has seen a drastic increase in the number of minority nursing graduates. In just five years, the college increased the number of minority graduates to more than 50% of the ADN class.
Additionally, NCLEX-RN pass rates for Flex graduates have been equal to or exceeded those of the college’s traditional ADN program, which have historically surpassed state and national averages.
“Black History Month is an opportunity to highlight the achievement of Black Americans and their contributions to our great country,” said President Walt Tobin. “At OCtech, we create opportunities for Black students to achieve their own potential, which impacts the broader community we serve.”
In 2020, OCtech was named a Community College Futures Assembly Bellwether Award finalist for its trend-setting ADN Flex program.
A needed spark
Because of the program’s success, other academic areas adopted the model, offering day, evening or online courses that students can take based on their changing circumstances. As a result, these programs have seen increased enrollment and course completion.
Shaquille Terry became a certified nursing assistant his senior year of high school through OCtech’s Early College. He later returned to OCtech for phlebotomy, emergency medical technician and LPN certifications.
After gaining experience in all of those fields, Terry joined the ADN Flex program in 2021. He continued working 12-hour shifts while training to become an RN.
Terry recently left his post as an ER nurse at the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg and is on his first traveling nurse assignment in Matthews, North Carolina.
“I am confident with the knowledge and hands-on skills I gained from OCtech,” he said. “I appreciate the route I took because I feel like it made me a more well-rounded, knowledgeable nurse.”
Both Barnes and Terry are enrolled in the online bachelor of science in nursing program at Claflin University in Orangeburg.
Terry’s career goal is to become an ER physician. Barnes wants to be a mental health nurse practitioner, a path she chose after participating in clinicals at a mental health facility.
“People say OCtech is hard or they make you do too much,” Barnes said. “All those tests we take, the clinicals we attend, the extra skills we learn, they prepare you. They give you the foundation you need to be a good nurse.”
This article originally appeared in CC Daily.