Local residents graduate with nursing degrees amid pandemic
This month, five students graduated from University of Alaska Anchorage’s registered nursing program through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest Campus in Nome. They are Kallie King, Daniel Hobbs, Alyse Morris, Ryan Meeks, all of Nome, and Vanessa Thalhofer of Kodiak. The two-year associate degree is an accomplishment even in normal times, but it’s taken on newfound meaning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Daniel Hobbs is one of the four Nome residents to graduate from the program. He started working in the medical field as a paramedic in Pennsylvania more than 10 years ago. “I really enjoyed working in emergency medicine, but I wanted to go further,” he said. A few years later, he heard from a family member that the Norton Sound hospital was moving to its new location and taking on a suite of new hires. “And one of the things that stood out was that they had a great program for medical education for their staff,” he said. With that education in mind, he and his family left Pennsylvania and moved to Nome. While Hobbs isn’t completely sure what lies in store for him, he said they’d likely stay in the region for some time to come.
Training and retaining local talent is one of the primary goals of the 10-year-old program, according to Kacey Miller, student services manager at UAF Northwest Campus. “Just the circumstances of the last year validate even more than ever the need for locally trained and knowledgeable residents to work in the hospital,” she said. “It’s so important.”
The process to become a Registered Nurse isn’t easy. Before even entering the two-year program, students need about 40 course credits in a wide range of topics, including biology, English and math. Most students take those courses remotely through UAF, often while working. For Hobbs, who took one to three classes per semester on top of working in the hospital’s lab, the process of just getting all his prerequisites took years. Then, it’s two years of full-time classes, including remote lectures from professors at UAA, hands-on classes in Nome and two-week visits to Anchorage or Fairbanks every semester to get firsthand clinical experience that’s not available at the Nome hospital.
“So, it’s a substantially more challenging degree than a lot of our other associate degrees, and it takes a lot of collaboration and support from various regional entities as partners to make it happen,” Kacey Miller said.
Principal among these partners is Norton Sound Health Corporation, which helps students gain firsthand experience and often offers them jobs upon graduation. But a huge amount of support also comes from Norton Sound Economic Development Company and Sitnasuak Native Corporation, which, Miller said, have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to support students through the program.
“Our region is one of the most supportive to post-secondary students in the state,” she said. “Many of our nurses, if not all of them, have graduated from the program debt-free, thanks to partnerships, funding and scholarships.”
The pandemic changed some aspects of the program, but with creativity and a little luck they were able to make it work, according to Flo Kassly, the program’s clinical instructor in Nome. She teaches some classes at the campus and helps coordinate other trainings the trips to Anchorage and Fairbanks. The Anchorage trip last spring was cancelled, but instructors at UAA were able to put together last-minute virtual simulations that mimicked what the students would have experienced in person. Then, for the fall trip, they were able to go in November during a two-month window between lockdowns.
Kassly, who’s been working as a nurse for 43 years, said the pandemic has also changed the job itself. At Quyanna Care Center, daily COVID testing and donning full personal protective equipment have become the norm. Before interacting with patients, nurses generally wash their hands in front of them, just to show that they’re clean.
“You have to mention those kinds of things that you probably never thought to do before,” she said. “It’s a different way of doing nursing now.”
In some ways, though, the job remains the same. Kassly said the current pandemic reminds her of the measles outbreaks she had to respond to in the late 1970s, another time of uncertainty and concern when nurses had to keep their cool and take care of patients. “People don’t think about that, but it did happen,” she said. “I told the students in the spring, I said ‘This is not going to be the only thing that’s going to happen. You’re on the front lines now.’”
Hobbs agreed that the pandemic hasn’t fundamentally changed the way he sees his new job. “The reality is that there’s a need for people to be able to step into places of care, when care is needed,” he said. “And that’s something that I could do.”
Whatever health challenges come next, Hobbs and his fellow graduates now have the tools to respond. And he added that the road doesn’t stop here. Like the rest of his cohort, he’s looking to continue his education with a bachelor’s degree to become a nurse practitioner, mostly through more online classes with UAA.
All four Nome graduates – the fifth in the cohort lives in Kodiak – are now working for NSHC and are one exam away from becoming fully registered RNs.
In total, there are 11 graduates of the program working at NSHC. The program has been largely successful in training local talent and keeping them in the region.
While Hobbs didn’t start out as a Nomeite, his time living, working and studying in the region have made him one. “I love the region, I love the people in the region, and I love the lifestyle we have out here,” he said. “So as far as I know, we’re going to be here.”
Regional residents thinking about furthering their education in nursing are encouraged to reach out to Kacey Miller at 907-443-8416 or email her at email@example.com.