nursing students seated at a table, wearing masks

Pictured clockwise from upper left, SIU accelerated BSN nursing students Gavin Wells, Maggie Kelley, Alexis Hoagland and Kira Marks are assisting Wellness and Health Promotion Services by creating workshops specially designed to meet student needs and requests as determined by assessments. Photo by Russell Bailey

June 24, 2022

SIU nursing students help peers, campus and community

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois University Carbondale nursing students don’t wait until graduation to help those around them.

SIU’s first accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing students are completing their training with community projects, both on and off campus, and several of the 16-member class already have jobs to go to after they earn their degrees in August. Debra Penrod, an assistant professor of nursing who is teaching the community health course, said the projects are a great way to give back to the university and the community at large, a practical way to capsulize what the nursing students have learned, and a wonderful resume-booster.

“This is the culmination of everything they’ve learned in nursing,” she said.  “They study, they comprehend, they train, they evaluate, then they create a plan and help people, all the while using best medical practices. Now they are going to be doing it for real. It is the whole learning continuum.” 

Students Maggie Kelley, Gavin Wells, Alexis Hoagland and Kira Marks have been working on projects to benefit their fellow SIU students and the community. From noon to 6 p.m. on July 6 and 19, the four nursing students will have a sun safety promotion at Carbondale Park District’s Super Splash Park at 625 S. Lewis Lane.

The nursing students will have an educational display table offering information, handouts and possibly sunscreen samples to community members. They are looking forward to chatting with people, encouraging them to wear sunscreen and sharing information about the harm the sun can cause to skin and how to recognize the signs of cellular changes and damage. That knowledge can save lives, they say.

“It’s really rewarding that we get to have that impact on our local community, especially people who aren’t seeking help or coming into a medical facility for care,” Kelley said. 

Kelley, of Vienna, Illinois, and her team will address misconceptions such as people of color not having to worry about sun damage. In fact, darker skin tones sometimes mask the signs of damage, making it more difficult to detect until it is more advanced.

After working six years as a lifeguard, Wells has seen what the sun can do, and he and his fellow nurses-in-training were quick to choose sun safety, one of four team projects.

Other nursing group projects are focused on educating SIU students about the hazards of binge drinking, including what to do if someone loses consciousness, and educating peers about sexual health as well as what health services are offered on campus through the Wellness Center and the Student Health Center. These three groups are coordinating with the Student Center to hold an informational health fair to present their topics to students in July. 

Each group is also working with the Student Health Center on a project.

Working with campus partners to serve students

Wellness and Health Promotion Services, part of SIU’s Student Health Services, collaborates with campus and community partners to create a healthy and inclusive campus culture by providing resources and programming to equip students to make good choices, said Rachelle Ridgeway, interim director of Wellness and Health Promotion Services and associate director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Penrod’s students are helping staff do that even more effectively in 2022 and beyond, Ridgeway said.

Each spring, SIU students are asked to evaluate the student health services provided and inform staff on what services and information they want and need. That’s where Penrod’s BSN students come in.

Ridgeway said she is excited to be collaborating with students from SIU’s nursing program as they have applied best health practices to help evaluate survey responses then plan ways to communicate what student need to know. She said the nursing students not only bring to the project planning professional expertise as nurse candidates but also personal experience as Salukis.

“I think the students receiving the information will appreciate getting it from their peers and experts in the field,” Ridgeway said. “We provide topic-specific presentations and workshops, host informational campus events and partner with campus and community entities to provide prevention-based trainings on a variety of topics that impact student success. That includes physical, nutritional and sexual health; alcohol and other drug harm reduction; violence and suicide prevention; stress management; resilience and coping skills and health equity, and even healthy eating. And all of our services are free to SIU students, even if they don’t have insurance.”

On a recent morning, Hoagland, Marks, Kelley and Wells were meeting at the Student Health Center, creating detailed plans for student workshops and presentations, and brainstorming ways to reach fellow students via social media, signage or other methods with valuable health-related information.

“These are things we get to write about and share our experiences about,” said Hoagland, of Edwards, Illinois. “We can help them discover resources we didn’t know were available to us. There are a lot of free resources on this campus and in the community, and we’re nursing students and we didn’t even know about them. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do with the things we’re creating.”

As an example, Marks, of Carbondale, Illinois, noted that many students don’t realize that even those without insurance can get treated or obtain X-rays or lab services for just $10 at the Student Health Center.

Three degree pathways, rigorous accelerated program

SIU launched its Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in 2019, and it offers three degree completion tracks: the traditional four-year bachelor’s program, the accelerated BSN program for qualified students who have earned at least 70 credit hours, and the hybrid RN to BSN degree-completion program. The traditional BSN program will graduate its first class in May 2023. When in full operation, officials anticipate SIU’s nursing program will provide training for about 300 students over a four-year period.

The accelerated BSN program, launched in the fall of 2021, is concentrated and rigorous, essentially covering the advanced skills typically taught over a three-year period in just a year, officials said. Penrod said this summer the accelerated BSN class is completing what would typically be the “senior” year of their curriculum, actually their third semester.

Moving forward, plans call for continuing to incorporate community health and SIU Student Health Services projects into the curriculum for both the accelerated and traditional nursing student programs, Penrod and Ridgeway said. 

For instance, in spring 2023, traditional nursing students will be involved with conducting the Student Health Services programming assessments, for which the accelerated BSN students can then help develop programming again next summer. And throughout the year, as it fits within the schedules of the various nursing programs, the nurses-in-training will begin assisting Ridgeway and Wellness and Health Promotion Services.

Making it count

While taking classes at SIU, the students have accumulated a lot of other practical experience as well, and it’s already paying off.

Wells and John Young, another student in the class, assisted staff from Southern Illinois Healthcare (SIH) in providing free sports physicals at Carbondale High School in early June. Wells and other students assisted with pediatric physicals at the Murphysboro school district earlier this year as well.

A Poplar Bluff, Missouri, native, Wells had a biology degree from another university but was excited to hear he could complete his nursing degree in just a year at SIU, a university with a great reputation. He believes the curriculum and hands-on training have prepared him well for his plan in the fast-paced world of a registered nurse in the ICU or emergency room.

The mother of a five-year-old, Kelley, wants to work in a pediatric ICU, ideally at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. Kelley said it’s important to treat parents and children the way she would like to see her child and herself treated. Originally a social worker, Kelley has always had a heart for helping people, but after living abroad in Italy for several years, she returned to the United States and decided to switch to a career where her work on behalf of her patients was more quickly noticeable and tangible. She’s happy that she can complete her degree in a short time at SIU.

Hoagland, of Edwards, Illinois, was a biology/chemistry major, originally planning to go into medicine, but became concerned that various factors would steer her away from her preferred areas of specialty. As she thought about it, she realized that her real love is the ICU, and she chose a career in nursing and SIU’s accelerated BSN program. It’s already paying off, she’s proud to say. She has been hired at Memorial Hospital in Carbondale, pending competition of her degree and passing her RN board examinations to earn her license. She’ll be working in the cardiovascular intensive care unit.

“It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “I’m already doing my clinicals there, and they are training me in that unit so I’ll be fully prepared.”

Marks has also already secured an ICU position at Memorial Hospital in Carbondale, following graduation and licensure, and she is likewise doing her clinical training at the SIH facility. She appreciates the intense nature of her internship and the fact that she has been getting hands-on experiences. She’s currently a patient care technician and certified medical assistant with SIH, but her path to a nursing career is unusual.

Marks earned a degree in automotive technology at SIU in 2009 and worked in the industry for several years. As time went on, she sought a profession that would give her a secure career where she could stay in Southern Illinois. She had worked as a phlebotomist for SIH in the past and liked the organization. As she explored her options, she discovered the new accelerated BSN program.

“I still work with my hands, fix things and make them work right,” Marks said with a laugh. And indeed, she’s very excited that she will be helping people and having a real impact.