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New UNCG nursing program puts veterans on fast track to degree

John Newsom | News & Record

GREENSBORO — When Angela Morrison looked into a physician’s assistant program in Florida several years ago, the university there wanted her to start from scratch.

Morrison’s community college degree didn’t count. Neither did her eight years in the Navy, where she was a corpsman assigned to a Navy hospital in Virginia and, later, at a medical clinic in Cherry Point.

Morrison started the program but realized she already knew most everything covered in those first classes. Rather than spend six years and tens of thousands of dollars to get that degree, Morrison left the program midway through the first semester and moved home to Virginia.

Several years later, when Morrison heard about a new nursing program at UNC-Greensboro, she was intrigued. Here, both her education and military experience would count.
“When I told them (UNCG) about my military experience, they said I’d be a perfect fit for the program,” Morrison said in an interview earlier this month. “It has been the opportunity of a lifetime.”

This fall, Morrison is a member of the first class of students in the Veterans Access Program, a two-year, full-time offering that puts former military members on a fast track to become a registered nurse with a four-year college degree.

UNCG was the first North Carolina university to get federal grant funding for the program, winning a $1 million grant last year to use over three years.

N.C. Central in Durham became the second earlier this year.

UNCG is one of 28 universities or university systems to have received a grant from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to offer an accelerated nursing-degree program for veterans.

UNCG’s first class of 15 students started this fall. Class members include former Army medics and Navy corpsmen. Several veterans served in Iraq or Afghanistan. A couple are still on active National Guard duty. All but two in the class are men. They range in age from their early 20s to their 50s.

The UNCG nursing school says another 16 students are expected to enroll through the Veterans Access Program in the spring followed by a second class of 32 students in the 2016-17 academic year.

Morrison and most of the new VAP students are scheduled to graduate in May 2017; a handful might graduate even earlier.

UNCG says most students plan to become registered nurses. Some have said they will continue their schooling to become nurse anesthetists or nurse practitioners — two specialized and well-paid professions.

Susan Letvak, the director of undergraduate programs for the nursing school, said UNCG adapted the program to help military veterans make a smoother transition into the civilian world. North Carolina is home to nearly 750,000 veterans. Letvak said about 100,000 of them received medical training in the military.

“Medically trained vets are unique,” said Letvak, a Navy veteran who directs the Veterans Access Program. “They learn advanced life-saving skills through their training in the military — the skills that nurses in the civilian world have — but none of that translates into a job in the civilian world.

“You get out of the military (with medical training), and you’re lucky to get a nursing assistant’s job.”

Traditionally, someone could become a registered nurse by getting a two-year degree at a community college. Today, about 60 percent of registered nurses have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Nurses with a four-year degree usually get paid more than those with a two-year degree, and there’s a growing body of research that suggests that patient care improves when nurses have more education.

The Veterans Access Program gives credit for college classes — many veterans take classes at multiple colleges while they’re in the service — as well as their military medical experience. Veterans admitted through the program go straight into the upper division, or junior year, of the nursing school.

These veterans do not compete for admission slots with traditional nursing students. UNCG got permission from the N.C. Board of Nursing to add extra spaces to the nursing school.

UNCG is using money from the federal grant to hire a program coordinator, tutors and instructors to teach hands-on clinical classes at area hospitals. The grant also pays for a transitions class, which teaches students the difference between military and civilian nursing practices. This once-a-week class is the only time the student-veterans are all together; otherwise, they’re in the same classes as traditional nursing students.

The program got another $250,000 from Susan Safran, who graduated from UNCG’s nursing school and is chairwoman of the university’s Board of Trustees. Half of her donation will go toward student expenses, such as test fees, uniforms and a nurse’s kit with medical tools that students use in class. The other half will go toward scholarships.

“I had the money and was looking for a place to put it,” Safran said. “This is a way to give back to people who have done so much and have seen so much.”

People like Kevin Scotti, who started the program this fall after several careers — as a U.S. army soldier, as an ad designer for area newspapers and a civilian contract worker who trained soldiers at Fort Bragg. At 58, he’s the self-described village elder of the class.

Scotti joined the Army in 1978 shortly after graduating from high school in New Jersey. He was assigned to a Special Forces group — commonly known as Green Berets — and picked medic as his specialty because his mother was a registered nurse and the job sounded interesting.

As a medic, Scotti was trained to do everything from basic first aid to treating severe trauma, such as gunshot wounds. He had to know how to use antibiotics and give IVs, do lab work and amputate a limb .

During the 1980s, Scotti said he was part of a 12-man Green Beret unit that conducted classified operations in Africa and the Middle East. When on a mission, he hauled with him a box of supplies — things like bandages, medicine, antibiotics, a microscope, a field lab with a hand-cranked centrifuge to do blood work.

“It doesn’t take much before you exhaust those supplies,” Scotti said. If he ran out of something while on a mission hundreds of miles from base, “usually scrounging was involved.”

Out in the field, he added, “if I have one IV needle and I drop it on the ground, the five-second rule definitely applies. I’m going to wipe it with an alcohol swab, and I’m going to put it in.”

As part of their UNCG training, veterans are learning the differences, some substantial and some subtle, between military and civilian nursing practices.

One thing remains constant, however: UNCG nursing officials say veterans have problem-solving skills that should serve them well in their post-graduate nursing careers.

“They bring a level of experience of dealing with very complex patients,” said Jean Reinert, director of education and training at Cone Health and a U.S. Air Force veteran who teaches the UNCG transitions class with Letvak. “We see a lot of people in nursing school who have never seen anyone sick before. They (veterans) have seen their buddies sick, and they’ve seen death. They know what they’re getting into.”