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Published in CenterView on September 10, 2012
Ragland, left and Lofton
Ragland, left and Lofton

Working nurses, energized faculty reinvigorate SON’s RN-to-BSN Program

By Matt Westerfield

By late July, Dr. Susan Lofton had not even begun recruiting students for a new program set to launch in August at the University of Mississippi School of Nursing.

As it turns out, she didn’t need to.

The RN-to-BSN Program already had about 55 students enrolled, thanks largely to a one-day information session and word-of-mouth.

The program announcement wasn’t posted on the School of Nursing’s website until July 5, she said. For most of the summer, “there was just talking it up in the hospital, telling previous students of mine to go tell their friends and that sort of thing.”

Although it’s not exactly a new program - the previous RN-to-BSN program was put on hold in 2009 — it’s safe to say it’s a reinvigorated program, brought back by heavy demand from working nurses and overhauled by a group of energized faculty members led by Lofton, professor of nursing and program director.

Having easily surpassed the original goal of 40 initial students with an initial cohort of all UMMC RNs that began last month, Lofton has her sights set high, aiming to become one of the largest academic classes on campus.

Associate-degree programs are very popular with nurses who want to get out into the working world quickly, said Lofton. Often, life gets in the way of those nurses going back and furthering their degrees.

Lofton says Dr. Marcia Rachel, assistant dean for academic programs, and Dr. Kim Hoover, dean of the School of Nursing, were the driving force behind revamping the program.

“I taught in the older program, but it was a smaller program,” Lofton said. “We always had plans to expand it, but the dean has a real vision about this.

“When Dr. Hoover became the dean, she talked to me repeatedly about putting this back in full force and really making it a strong, viable program for nurses throughout the state.”

The reason why UMMC staff nurses comprise the first class is purely a response to demand. Lofton said she’s had many nurses call and ask when the program would be offered again.

“We have so many hard-working nurses here who want to expand their education,” she said. “We listened to them and really thought, ‘Why would we want our own nurses to go outside of our own system and have to pay for courses when we can offer it right here, and they can take advantage of a great tuition deal with getting the six hours a semester in tuition reimbursement?’
“That’s huge for the nurses here.”

Not only that, but it’s a lean, mean curriculum designed to be as flexible as possible for busy, working nurses. Full-time students can complete the program in three semesters, and new students are accepted every semester. Almost all of the coursework is online in an independent-study format with asynchronous classes, meaning the student does not have to be logged on any specific time.

Lofton said she already expects up to 100 new students to begin in January.

“We are doing everything we can think of to help them meet their educational goals,” she said. “We want to be known as the program that is completely flexible, fun to go through with as minimal stress as possible.

“My goal is to have every associate-degree nurse in the state of Mississippi vying for a position at this School of Nursing program. We want everybody in the state to come here.”

Lofton, who has been a member of the faculty since 1996, will have some extra help to share the teaching workload. Her sister, Gaye Ragland, joined the faculty full time in the summer after years of part-time teaching and working as a nurse educator in the hospital.
They call themselves the “twisted sisters.”

“We keep the students very confused,” Lofton said laughing. “We look alike and sound alike.”
Together, they emphasize making the program fun by creating out-of-the-box projects that can impact patients positively at UMMC. They hope many of those nurses will be funneled into the school’s master’s tracks and beyond, resulting in a more robust nursing corps.

“Dr. Lofton’s enthusiasm, her expertise in teaching and her genuine desire to see nurses continue their education create an ideal situation for the incoming students,” said Hoover. “The RN-to-BSN curriculum has been revamped to encourage these nurses to combine the clinical knowledge they already have with new skills and knowledge they will receive in this program.”

“I think there’s a great need for this, even in our community here at UMMC,” Lofton said. “We believe that the higher the education, the greater the opportunity for the nurses.”



SHRP offers new D.H.A. Program

Health-care professionals looking for an advanced degree with an eye on shaping and enhancing health policy, administration and leadership now can pursue one at the School of Health Related Professions.

Last month, the first cohort of 11 students began the newly minted Doctor of Health Administration Program, one of only three in the country.

The three-year program, designed for Mississippi professionals who serve in clinical, administrative or faculty positions, is mostly online and part-time, with students taking two courses per semester along with four on-campus meetings.

The D.H.A. Program is so unique that only two other universities in the nation offer an online program like it, said Dr. Dennis Watts, associate dean and interim director.

Watts said the new degree offering has drawn a great deal of interest from UMMC faculty and administrators. Unlike the school’s Master of Health Care Administration Program, Watts said the new program targets professionals who have experience in health care.

“We want to have the best program in the country,” he said. “The reason for the small cohort is to keep the class size small and keep the quality high.”

Watts said the need for health-care administrators to have advanced training is critical because the field is changing rapidly.

“We need the opportunity to bring people together from different settings so they can learn from each other and collaborate,” he said.