USM pushing to extend nursing program for veterans

Southern Miss nursing program helps veterans use skills

USM Gulf Park hopes to convince IHL to continue program that grants veterans credit for skills learned in the military
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USM Gulf Park hopes to convince IHL to continue program that grants veterans credit for skills learned in the military

LONG BEACH -- Kimberly Lacap got plenty of real-world experience during her time as a medic in the U.S. Air Force.

Probably enough to skip most of her first-semester classes in nursing school, she said.

But that wasn't an option.

According to the Institutes of Higher Learning, which sets policy for the state's public universities, students can't receive credits unless they actually take the class -- they can't test out. Without those credits, students can't graduate, take certification exams and begin practicing as registered nurses.

Officials at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Park campus are aiming to change that.

The campus -- which hosts a heavy concentration of non-traditional and former military students -- is in the second year of a three-year, $1 million grant that provides a fast-track program for military students with experience in medicine.

But when the grant expires in 2017, so will those students' option to test out of certain classes. About 60 former military students would be affected in the first two years alone.

Leaders at the nursing school are hoping IHL officials will reconsider their policy, and allow the Gulf Park campus to set a precedent for nursing schools all over the state.

"If they've been in a military hospital for three years, they already have the skills, know

techniques," said Patsy Anderson, associate dean of the College of Nursing and a military veteran. "The military training, though top-notch, is not accredited. But the students we are getting are excellent. That's why it's such a shame."

Veterans BSN Pathway

As the military has drawn down, officials across the country have looked for ways to help veterans transition into the civilian workforce in all fields.

Job fairs aimed at veterans are common. There have been campaigns encouraging employers to hire veterans. And some colleges and universities, including USM Gulf Coast, have made retraining veterans a priority.

The campus received the grant for the Veterans BSN Pathway from the Human Service Resource Administration in 2014. The agency, under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is devoted to providing quality and affordable healthcare but has also put resources towards helping veterans transition to civilian medical fields.

"The government is downsizing the military so they're investing money into bringing discharged soldiers home and letting them use their military skills," Anderson said. "The problem is that the state doesn't accept that for credit."

For the duration of the grant, veterans who can demonstrate certain military medical experience can opt out of certain classes. Some could finish the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in five semesters.

Out-of-state tuition is also waived for those students.

"It's a great match with what we have to offer with this program, because these young people will bring a sense of service from their military background into the nursing profession, which is service-oriented as well," said Retired Maj. Gen. Jeff Hammond, director of veterans and military student services at USM.

So far, six students in the program have passed the National Council Licensure Examination for nurses. There are 11 students enrolled in the program with six set to graduate in May.

Helping all students

The grant also has funded the purchase of several high-tech simulation dummies to bring the total number to 13.

The fake men, women, children and babies cry, moan, speak, sweat, cry and vomit. They have different lung and gastric sounds. One of the female mannequins can give birth. Another comes equipped with a "fat suit."

The students start working with the dummies at the end of their first semester -- learning basic assessment skills. By the time they approach graduation, students run codes and life-and-death scenarios.

The dummies provide a safe environment to learn skills and techniques, one devoid of any real-world negative consequences. That has benefited all students in the school, even veterans with experience.

"A lot of those in the military work with healthy young men. Here we're able to bring them into, for example, pediatric scenarios they won't see in the battlefield," Anderson said. "Some of the trauma veterans are EMT types. They've never dealt with someone with just high blood pressure."

Grant money also has allowed the school to hire an additional instructor, who, in addition to her teaching duties, serves as a counselor for student veterans who may be facing issues re-adjusting to civilian life that their peers haven't dealt with.

Hoping for change

The federal grant expires in June 2017 but Anderson is hoping IHL officials can be persuaded to continue the option of testing out of certain classes even after the money runs out.

Three students will begin the program in the fall, and there are more than 60 veterans intending to go to nursing school that are still working on per-requisite classes.

Lacap, 29, will graduate with her Bachelor of Science in Nursing this May. She said she enjoyed her classes at USM but also said continuing the program would benefit veterans.

"It was okay for me, because I was already a (licensed practical nurse,)" she said. "Still, I feel like it could have gone faster. I could have gotten done a little quicker."

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