Challenging the Status Quo

School of Nursing pursues new programs, improves academic standing 

Starting something new is never easy, there are always obstacles to overcome. Since classes began in 2011, students, faculty and staff of Sam Houston State University’s School of Nursing have seen their share of stalls and successes. Now, they are ready to grow even more into a field experiencing high demand.

From humble beginnings with a cohort of 20 nursing students and five faculty members, the Nursing program currently has more than 350 students, 37 faculty and staff members, and 386 graduates. With each class, Sam Houston State cements itself as a great name in healthcare.

Director Denise Neill is an expert in meeting the challenges of getting programs started. She previously helped open four separate nursing programs as lead faculty and coordinator at the University of Houston – Victoria, Texas A&M – Texarkana and Southern Arkansas. Neill believes new students and staff bring fresh ideas and drive into the program.

“We feel energized when new cohorts come in,” Neill said. “They are excited to get their white coats and begin their education in healthcare, everything is new to them and we feel that energy and it motivates us to begin again each semester.”

Last fall, the School of Nursing moved its entire program to the SHSU-The Woodlands Center, putting the school in the hub of five major healthcare systems.

“It is exciting that we are here, because it makes us a natural partner to all these local hospitals. We are doing things that not only benefit our university, but healthcare facilities as well,” Neill said. “The building is alive now that all of our programs are here, it feels like a natural extension of campus.”

Nursing is a field in need of a new generation of talent. With a population of more than 320,000 registered nurses in Texas, surprisingly 90,000 of them are over the age of 55. The challenge faculty face is knowing they must properly prepare their students to lead the nursing workforce of the future.

“Our faculty and staff are not satisfied with the status-quo,” Neill said. “They are always seeking to learn how to be better teachers for our students, because they see career success as student success. They could be taking more shifts in hospitals for their own gain, instead they are here, because they want to be here, and we remain dedicated to teaching the next generation.” 

Associate Professor Kelly Zinn, who was one of the first five faculty hired to start the School of Nursing, says she wants to see SHSU continue to grow and evolve.  

“The reason I teach nursing is to promote a positive image to future nurses,” Zinn said. “I feel a personal connection and pride to the strong reputation we are building with each class of students we put in the workforce.” 

SHSU faculty shine statewide as well. Clinical Assistant Professor Mona Cockerham was recently honored as a ‘Top 20 Outstanding Nurse’ by the Texas Nurses Association District 9.

“It is a tremendous, once-in-a-lifetime honor to be named in the Top 20,” Neill said. “Her ability to connect with students and inspire them to become outstanding nurses speaks for her long lasting career and she truly deserves this honor.” 

One example of the school’s dedication to students led to increased success for graduates taking the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), which gives individuals the permission to practice nursing.

“In 2014, our pass rate was below 80 percent, and by 2018 we pushed that above 95 percent,” Neill said. “In fact, last May we had our first cohort with a 100 percent pass rate and that is one of the things I am proudest of in my time here.”

There are challenges beyond the classroom as well. One of the priorities for Neill and Rodney Runyan, dean of the College of Health Sciences, is building more scholarships for nursing students to help defray some of the expenses associated with cost of living and traveling to partner hospitals. 

“Any nursing alumni will tell you that there can be a financial strain, and it is not always obvious where the costs come from,” Neill said. “Students spend two or three days a week driving to clinical hospitals. It would be my dream to have more financial aid to help students with some of those non-academic costs that go unnoticed at times.”

The future in healthcare programs at SHSU looks bright, as each Nursing class continues to grow in numbers and reputation. The next step is to add another component to the SHSU healthcare hub, a Masters of Science in Nursing, Family Nurse Practitioner program.

“We are seeking Board of Nursing approval,” Neill said. “Both the Board of Regents and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board have approved us, so we are excited about the prospect of what we can continue to bring to students pending further approval.”

To help SHSU meet these challenges, you can designate your generous gift to the Friends of the School of Nursing fund in the College of Health Sciences.

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