By CARMEN K. SISSON/The (Columbus) Commercial Dispatch
COLUMBUS — They came from across the nation, their hair perhaps a little grayer, their steps perhaps a little slower, but their faces as alight with enthusiasm as they were the first day they stepped on campus at Mississippi University for Women. It was a celebration, after all, and the charter class of MUW’s College of Nursing and Speech-Pathology came prepared for the occasion.
As alumni across campus enjoyed homecoming activities, nursing graduates flocked to Martin Hall, roaming the corridors and tracing a long blue ribbon that snaked along the walls and connected lists comprising four decades of nursing school graduates.
Dr. Sheila Adams, now dean of the college, remembered fondly the program’s early days. She was just a junior faculty member at its inception in 1973, and she never dreamed how wildly successful the program would become. She had not intended to stay in Mississippi and certainly had no aspirations of leading the college through 40 years of change.
But she couldn’t stop smiling Friday as she reminisced with students and former students.
She remembers a time without computers or high-tech, computerized simulators. When students needed to learn how to take blood or insert an IV, they had to practice on one another. If they were not successful the first time, Adams and the other instructors rolled their own sleeves up, proffering their arms — and veins — for the almighty purpose of real-world experience.
Thermometers and syringes were made of glass, and nurses wore dresses, caps, duty shoes, and, occasionally, gloves. Today, plastic has replaced glass, scrubs have replaced dresses, tennis shoes have replaced duty shoes, caps are gone and gloves are a requirement, not an afterthought.
Professors no longer serve as student pin cushions either. The new simulators — computerized, life-size mannequins — are so advanced that they provide heart, lung and breath sounds and can respond to treatments and simulated events like cardiac arrest. The models can even talk to the students and respond to questions.
That kind of experience is helpful, particularly for today’s graduates, who face steeper challenges and more responsibilities, said Faye Jordan, a graduate of the Class of 1981.
She taught nursing for 14 years at Itawamba Community College, then joined MUW’s staff for another 14 years. Now she teaches part-time at The W. One of the biggest changes she has seen is the high level at which today’s nurses are expected to perform.
“They are taking care of people that would have been in intensive care when I graduated,” she said Friday. “They’re taking care of the sickest of the sick.”
But MUW is meeting the need for producing these highly-skilled nurses, MUW President Dr. Jim Borsig said. Over the past 40 years, 25 percent of all graduates were nursing students. It is now the single most popular major on campus, with its students making up one-third of the current student body.
“The nursing program is so strong, it recruits students itself,” Borsig said.
MUW was the first college in the state to offer a master’s degree nurse practitioner program and was the only one to do so in Mississippi until the late 1990s. Along with the state-accredited master’s degree, the department also offers associates and bachelors degrees in nursing, and, most recently, a doctorate of nursing practice.
The doctorate program, which enrolled its first students in January, offers a choice between a one-year intensive or two-year part-time program. Students must earn between 38 and 44 hours beyond those required for a master’s degree, and they must have a minimum of 1,000 clinical hours to graduate.
Another recent announcement — MUW’s partnership with North Mississippi Health Services in Tupelo — will help students by offering a one-year advanced practice clinicians residency program, allowing them to earn college credit in the doctorate program while training with family medical physicians.
The college’s graduates have earned a 100 percent pass rate for the past two years on their certification exams, surpassing the national average of 86-88 percent.
It’s a rigorous program, said Barbara Bryan, a graduate of the charter class of 1973.
She was attending Mississippi State University and working at Ivy Memorial Hospital in Clay County when the hospital’s director of nurses told her about MUW’s fledgling program. Fascinated, she enrolled. And eventually, she returned to Ivy Memorial, where she served as director of nursing for 17 years before taking a position at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo.
Now, she teaches nursing at MUW, but even though she is on campus every day, she said she wouldn’t have missed the 40th anniversary celebration. It brought her back to her roots, she said. It reminded her not to take the program for granted, because there was a time when Mississippi students didn’t have the opportunities she was given.
Unlike larger colleges, MUW’s nursing school offers a family atmosphere, Adams said. Faculty members, whose offices are often sequestered on a separate floor from students, are interspersed throughout Martin, making it easy for administrators to sit in on classes or catch a student in the hallway to ask about issues they may be having.
“We know our students, and they know us,” Adams said. “The faculty and students interact all the time. The graduates stay in contact, and that’s kind of fun. Our students are our best recruiters.”