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Top-ranked WCSU Nursing Department poised for expansion

New teaching facilities, clinically skilled faculty ready to meet growing student demand

DANBURY, CONN. — Recent regional and national recognitions of the Western Connecticut State University Nursing Department provide timely testimony to a program on the rise, poised after a major expansion in instructional facilities and deepening of faculty strength to meet the challenges of significant growth in student enrollment during the next two years.

The latest citation placing the WCSU nursing program at the top of its class comes from the survey of Connecticut nursing education programs released in January 2017 by the national online service www.RegisteredNursing.org, which ranked Western first among 20 public and private nursing schools statewide. The evaluation was based on criteria including the quality and breadth of academic and clinical training, the affordability of a nursing education, and the percentage of graduates who pass the NCLEX-RN examination, which determines the award of licensing as a registered nurse. Previously the Nursing Schools Almanac inaugural survey of more than 3,000 nursing schools nationwide during 2016 placed Western at No. 20 among nearly 150 schools rated in the New England region.

Brooke Wallace, founder and managing editor of RegisteredNursing.org, said that her service’s analysis of all RN training programs in Connecticut concluded that “Western not only supports students during their time in class, but also does an outstanding job in preparing students for a career as a licensed registered nurse. This strong RN program prepares students successfully to conquer the NCLEX-RN and produces graduates who have the ability to carry what they learned into the healthcare world.”

These new honors underscore the fact that Western is building on one of the university’s widely recognized academic strengths as the Department of Nursing opens new state-of-the-art instructional facilities during the spring semester and embarks on a major expansion in undergraduate enrollment in its Bachelor of Science (B.S.) program. With the initial expanded class of 96 students already enrolled at the sophomore level — roughly double the present class sizes at the junior and senior levels — the department’s core undergraduate program is on track to complete a twofold increase in overall enrollment by the 2018-19 academic year.

Department Chair Dr. Joan Palladino cited Western’s commitment to offer a three-year bachelor’s degree curriculum in nursing, in contrast to two-year programs at many institutions, as a decisive academic advantage for students preparing for a nursing career. “Starting in the sophomore year, our students get a great deal of medical and surgical nursing experience as part of our curriculum, with three clinical courses in their sophomore and junior years as well as the senior clinical course that ties it all together,” Palladino said. “Our students get more hours of experience in clinical settings, and that means they are very well prepared when they enter the workplace.”

Paralleling the growth in B.S. program enrollment, the Nursing Department is opening five newly renovated classrooms at White Hall on the university’s Midtown campus, designed to advance and expand the department’s capacity to teach critical thinking and decision-making skills through simulation of actual clinical care settings. Four of the new classrooms have been equipped with SIM mannequins that instructors stationed at computer controls behind one-way mirrors may manipulate to simulate standard and critical care scenarios and observe students’ care responses. Four new SIM mannequins, including a SIM Mom for obstetrics training and a Trauma SIM for intensive care simulations, have joined a fifth SIM Man for lab exercises. A fifth refurbished classroom will seat up to 24 students for simulation debriefing and discussion. A ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating completion of the renovation will be held at 7:30 a.m. on March 30 at the SIM nursing labs on the second floor of White Hall.

The instructional benefits from these facilities upgrades have been reinforced by the hiring of new nursing professors over the past several years, which has strengthened the department’s ranks to 21 full-time faculty members complemented by additional instructors holding adjunct positions. The department also recently hired a nursing laboratory coordinator whose arrival will enable students for the first time to schedule additional hours for lab practice outside their classroom periods.

Palladino observed that a core strength of the Western nursing program is the active and continuing engagement of both full-time and adjunct faculty members in clinical work ranging from acute-care hospital units to psychiatric, pediatric, obstetric and geriatric health care. The nursing faculty’s extensive professional relationships and the WCSU program’s sterling reputation in the field have made it easier for the department to establish and expand essential clinical training arrangements with health care institutions across Connecticut, including Danbury and Norwalk hospitals in the Western Connecticut Health Network as well as Yale New Haven, Waterbury, St. Mary’s, Bristol and other hospitals statewide.

“Our full-time faculty all hold academic credentials in their field, but what sets them apart is that they are very engaged in the clinical setting because they still work in nursing and stay current in their profession,” Palladino said. “Our faculty members have real-life experience that they bring to our nursing program.”

Another strong emphasis in Western’s nursing program is the faculty’s commitment to become proactive advisers to students in guiding their course selections and intervening when academic performance falters. “Our faculty members take their advisement responsibilities seriously and stay very much on top of our students’ progress,” Palladino said. “We keep closely in touch with those students who are struggling and need help.”

Such early intervention has helped to maintain NCLEX-RN pass rates in a lofty range of 94 to 100 percent for graduating B.S. classes in nursing since 2004. Even more impressive, Palladino noted, the WCSU Nursing Department consistently achieves 100 percent job placement of its B.S. students within six months after graduation, securing positions across the professional spectrum from acute care and rehabilitation facilities to community health clinics and long-term care institutions.

In addition to the traditional undergraduate program, the WCSU Department of Nursing currently enrolls 120 students in its RN-B.S. program as a pathway for RNs working in the health care field to complete studies online and at satellite sites in Waterbury and Norwalk to achieve a bachelor’s degree in nursing. The department also offers a Master of Science (M.S.) program in nursing leading to certification as a nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist, with a program concentration in adult gerontology. Enrollment in the master’s program has recently grown by one-third to a total of 68 students, and Palladino anticipates further growth due to a shortage of nurse practitioners in the region. In a collaboration initiated three years ago, Southern Connecticut State University and WCSU jointly offer an Ed.D. in Nursing Education program, with a total of 38 students currently taking online courses and completing dissertation work to prepare for faculty careers at nursing schools regionally and nationally.

Palladino, who serves as co-director of the deans and directors group of the Connecticut League for Nursing, said that demand for nursing professionals trained at Western and other schools will only intensify as a growing number of nurses over the age of 50 begin to retire from the health care workforce. “We’re already starting to see more hiring as this big influx of retirements begins,” she said.