Helping the University of Wyoming Overcome Challenges of Distance

    • September 9, 2015
Two young women using a computer.

“Sometimes I think of Wyoming as ‘Alaska Light,’” jokes Candace M. Tull, PhD, RN, WHNP-BC, the coordinator of the University of Wyoming’s (UW) New Careers in Nursing (NCIN) program. “We have a lot of the same challenges. The topography is extremely challenging. We have big deserts, big mountains, long distances, and we’re sparsely populated.”

In both health care and educational terms, the geography poses particular challenges, and UW’s School of Nursing has tailored its Bachelor’s Reach for Accelerated Nursing Degree program, or BRAND, accordingly. The school’s distance learning program for nursing students who’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree in another discipline allows students across the state to do much of their course and clinical work close to home.

The UW School of Nursing has participated in NCIN for six years. A nationwide program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, NCIN has funded scholarships for more than 3,500 nursing students from groups underrepresented in the field, supporting their studies at accelerated baccalaureate and master’s programs at more than 130 schools of nursing nationwide. All NCIN scholars have already earned bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing disciplines.

In a state with an overwhelmingly white, non-Hispanic population (84 percent), BRAND’s diversity push has had its best results recruiting men; the share of male students has grown significantly and, depending on the class, now ranges from 20 to 25 percent. The share of minority students and those from underserved communities has also grown during the school’s participation in NCIN, ranging from 25 percent to nearly 40 percent.

Building Networks Across the State

BRAND is providing supports to help students in the program succeed. Given the state’s geography, that has required some creativity, particularly with respect to mentoring distance-learning students and providing them with clinical opportunities.

Wyoming’s a big state, but the nursing community is fairly small,” explains Tull. “It’s easy to identify the movers and shakers, and if someone gets involved with their local nursing association, or if they go to nursing legislative days in the winter, we can meet people and recruit them to be mentors. In fact, many of them volunteer. So those relationships and word of mouth have gone a long way for us.

The resulting network of mentors covers the state, allowing Tull to pair every NCIN BRAND student with a practicing nurse, and to provide the mentors with training based on an NCIN toolkit.

Tull and her colleagues have also developed partners across the state to serve as clinical faculty for students. But given the dispersal of the state’s hospitals, many students still end up traveling for their clinical work, incurring transportation and housing costs. She says the NCIN scholarships have helped overcome that problem, and points out that the school’s participation in the program helped leverage a large grant from a family foundation, which has helped even more.

Similarly, the state legislature has helped build on the program by developing a student loan package specifically to cover BRAND’s tuition. Once students graduate, they can either begin paying back the loan or commit to working two years as a nurse in Wyoming, after which the debt is forgiven. Taking advantage of that incentive to stay in the state, BRAND advertises to potential clinical partners that the program allows the state’s many rural and isolated hospitals and other health care entities to “grow their own Bachelor of Science in Nursing-prepared nurses.”

With NCIN funding winding down, Tull sees two principal legacies from the program. First, many of the components will continue—and the mentorship program may even be extended to the school’s baccalaureate program. Second, NCIN has helped the school improve its approach to recruiting a more diverse group of students, and that will live on.

“There’s a hallway near my office where we hang pictures of each class of students,” Tull says. "One of our NCIN students pointed out that the pictures have changed a lot in terms of diversity over the years of the NCIN grants—that’s really important to us. We’re much more sensitive to diversity issues and more proactive about it in our nursing program now.”