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UMW nursing program helps meet critical need

From UMW:

Abigail Zimmerman has done her part to help curb COVID. The University of Mary Washington senior vaccinated dozens of Fredericksburg area residents as a hospital volunteer this spring.

Rileigh Ecker '21 earned her BSN degree through the 1+2+1 program, one of three BSN tracks that are part of the partnership between UMW, Germanna Community College and Mary Washington Healthcare. Photo credit: Courtney Morgan Photography.
Rileigh Ecker ’21 earned her BSN degree through the 1+2+1 program, one of three BSN tracks that are part of the partnership between UMW, Germanna Community College and Mary Washington Healthcare. Photo credit: Courtney Morgan Photography.

“It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” said Zimmerman, a UMW nursing student. “I know I’m in the right place, positively impacting the lives of people around me.”

In the midst of a global pandemic and critical nursing shortage, her chosen profession is needed now more than ever. Three pathways, offered by UMW in conjunction with community partners, are helping aspiring nurses answer that call. One of these tracks even gives students like Zimmerman the chance to live on campus, while gaining clinical experience and completing coursework infused with the liberal arts and uniquely designed to inform their careers.

The pandemic changed how society views nurses, said UMW Director of Nursing Janet Atarthi-Dugan, who oversees all three pathways, made possible through agreements with Germanna Community College (GCC) and Mary Washington Healthcare (MWH). The tracks, formed in 2015, also include a BSN completion program for current registered nurses and one that provides a seamless transition for community college students planning to transfer to Mary Washington.

“Nursing is not solely about compassion and holding hands,” Atarthi-Dugan said. “Today’s nurses are working collaboratively with physicians while managing acutely ill patients. They need to be educated and prepared for rapidly changing patient statuses.”

Mary Jane Bowles, who coordinates MWH’s New Graduate Residency Program, described the partnership as a “visionary community collaboration.” Paired with the Germanna nursing program, “UMW’s BSN degree is a win for students, as it’s one of the best nursing programs in the state,” she said. “The combination positions UMW graduates for leadership after graduation.”

UMW nursing students, who live and learn together in a cohort in the 1+2+1 program, take a selfie together outside Mary Washington Hospital after their last clinical rotation in the spring. Photo courtesy of Abigail Zimmerman.
UMW nursing students, who live and learn together in a cohort in the 1+2+1 program, take a selfie together outside Mary Washington Hospital after their last clinical rotation in the spring. Photo courtesy of Abigail Zimmerman.

MWH Chief Nursing Officer Eileen Dohmann agrees. Students who complete this program, she said, are better prepared for the critical and complex decisions they face every day. Nearly two-thirds of MWH nurses already have a BSN, Dohmann added. Another 15 percent are in the process of earning one.

UMW students take courses like anatomy and physiology, but what really sets the program apart is a healthy dose of the liberal arts. Classes like Medical EthicsWriting Studies and Healing, and Death and Society prepare novice nurses to tackle complex medical issues and improve patient outcomes, Atarthi-Dugan said.

“As a nurse, it’s inevitable you’ll lose patients,” Zimmerman said. “Learning about death as a natural process forced me to think about how I would handle these situations.”

The track she’s completing, called the “1+2+1 program,” lets students spend their freshman year fulfilling prerequisites at UMW and GCC. During years two and three, they complete the RN degree and clinical experiences at Germanna – while paying community college tuition costs – before finishing BSN degree requirements at Mary Washington. Most UMW nursing classes are online, so many students also work at local hospitals during their final year.

In addition, UMW provides opportunities for students beyond what they’d find in traditional nursing programs. Lyka Ante ’20 studied abroad, treating underserved communities in Panama and Peru. Zimmerman played all four years on the UMW women’s soccer team.

The pandemic hampered some activities like clinical experiences, Atarthi-Dugan said, but nursing students contributed however they could. Sophomore Aubrey Guerra, for example, tracked COVID cases at the University. “People who show symptoms are scared,” she said. “It was our job to make them feel comfortable, safe and informed.”

With the current need for nurses, UMW grads land jobs at MWH, Inova Health System, Sentara Healthcare and beyond.

After working full-time at Stafford Hospital her senior year, Rileigh Ecker ’21 became a pediatric psychology nurse at VCU Children’s Hospital in Richmond. It’s a path she wouldn’t have considered without the liberal arts courses she took at Mary Washington.

“I’m so grateful for UMW and the doors it opened for me,” Ecker said. “Besides my education, the independence and courage I found there prepared me for my first year of nursing during a global pandemic.”

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