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Every Student Has a Story: Expanding Access to Nursing Education

The U.S. needs more nurses, which means it needs more nursing students. Many students, especially non-traditional, or those who may be first in their families to pursue higher education, may need additional types of support throughout their academic journey to prepare them to enter the workforce. Galen College of Nursing recognizes that every student has individual needs, which is why they employ a holistic approach to expanding access to nursing education.
Nursing News & ProgramsNurses Leading Innovation

Every Student Has a Story: Expanding Access to Nursing Education

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The U.S. needs more nurses, which means it needs more nursing students. Many students, especially non-traditional, or those who may be first in their families to pursue higher education, may need additional types of support throughout their academic journey to prepare them to enter the workforce. Galen College of Nursing recognizes that every student has individual needs, which is why they employ a holistic approach to expanding access to nursing education.
Students at Galen College of Nursing in Hazard, Kentucky.jpg

To ensure safe, quality healthcare is accessible for all, it takes nurses. And with an estimated 275,000 new nurses needed by 2030, mentoring and supporting the next generation of nurses and students to set them up for success is top of mind for many nursing leaders, academic institutions, and healthcare organizations.

Innovative and creative solutions are critical in expanding access to nursing education, and one example is Galen College of Nursing, a private nursing college and part of HCA Healthcare. The two organizations share a strategic goal of increasing access to nursing education, and Galen now has 16 campuses nationwide and more than 12,000 students.

The college’s student body is diverse, which is important in efforts to build a nursing workforce that represents the communities it serves. A quarter of students identify as Hispanic, and 15% identify as Black. The average age of a Galen student is 32 and half of its students are Pell Grant recipients. From “grow your own” programs in rural Kentucky to an HBCU partnership in Nashville, Tennessee, Galen’s innovative, student-centric approach increases access to nursing education, providing a professional pathway for more students from diverse communities.

“I Always Tell My Story”

Dr Audria Denker.jpg

“Every student has a story,” says Dr. Audria Denker, DNP, MSN, RN., executive vice president of Nursing at Galen’s main campus in Louisville, KY. “I always tell my story, because it explains my passion for this philosophy on our campuses.”

Growing up in a small eastern Kentucky coal town, Denker became pregnant in her junior year of high school. “I dropped out of school to raise my son,” she says. “I accepted that this was my life now.”

Her older sister disagreed, relentlessly pushing her to get her GED, then to go to college to pursue nursing. “I was a single mom, divorced, in an impoverished area. A first-generation college student,” she says. “But in east Kentucky, we have a lot of grit.”

That grit pushed her through college and into a nursing career, then to a doctoral degree and finally to a leadership role at Galen.

“It changed my life,” she says, “and so many of our students have the same story I have, especially in Eastern Kentucky. They look at me with my doctorate, and they can relate to having to work really hard.”

Nusring students at Galen College of Nursing in Hazard, Kentucky, with a simulation mannequin
Source: Galen College of Nursing

Denker was instrumental in opening two campuses in rural Appalachia. Facing severe nursing shortages, Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH) in Hazard, Kentucky, developed an innovative partnership with Galen in 2017 to employ a ‘grow your own’ strategy – in other words, when a hospital or other healthcare organization invests in creating nursing education opportunities within its community.

Five years later, the school expanded its footprint in the state, partnering with Pikeville Medical Center to open a second Kentucky campus. Galen nursing graduates often choose to practice in their own communities, improving access to care, health equity and patient outcomes.

When the program struggled to find enough faculty, they instilled a “grow your own” approach there, too, identifying former students who were successful in their nursing careers and might be interested in coming back to Galen for advanced degrees and faculty positions.

Students at Galen College of Nursing in Hazard, Kentucky 3.jpg
Source: Galen College of Nursing

Galen provides hands-on, wraparound support to ensure students have what they need to show up, succeed, and become the nurses their communities need. Galen provides textbook and uniform assistance, personal counseling, academic progress coaches and sessions focused on study and test-taking strategies, but also support that extends beyond academics. With social workers on staff, Galen addresses other concerns like access to food, transportation, and housing.
“We found out that some students weren’t eating all day long,” Denker says. “We started a program called the ‘forgot your lunch’ program, because we didn’t want to call anybody out. If you didn’t have lunch, there were different things you could have. At first, we couldn’t even keep it filled, that’s how often it was used.”

“We feel we have a niche for educating and offering opportunity to people in their own backyard,” says Denker. “We had a student, he’s now the director of an emergency room down there say, ‘This is my ticket out of poverty.’ It’s impactful. It’s making a huge difference."

This sentiment is echoed by Emilee Fairchild, a student at Galen’s Hazard campus, who plans to start her post-graduate career as a midwife in her hometown Kentucky community. “I absolutely love taking care of people,” she says. “It’s rewarding to have this opportunity and to learn everything we're learning. I believe if you want to see a change, you need to be the change. When we finish here at Galen, we actually get to go out and be that change in someone's life.”

Emilee Fairchild, front, with fellow nursing students at Galen.jpg
Source: Emilee Fairchild

Start with Fisk, Finish with Galen

For the educators and administrators at Galen, nothing is one-size-fits-all. Another program, in partnership with Nashville-based HBCU Fisk University, takes a different innovative approach in opening doors to a nursing career.

The Fisk/Galen Dual Track Degree Progression Option officially launched in January 2023, and allows students enrolled in specific health and science programs at Fisk to seamlessly transition from earning a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) degree into the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program at Galen’s Nashville campus.

The parallel partnership pairs Galen’s singular focus on nursing with Fisk’s emphasis on pipeline programs that steer students into impactful careers. This, paired with HCA Healthcare’s $1.5 million in scholarship funds to support Fisk students pursuing a degree in nursing, has created a pathway that makes nursing a career option for Fisk students who might not have otherwise considered it.

“Creating the program isn't just about addressing the nursing shortage,” says Dr. Carla McKenzie, dean of the Nashville campus, but also about driving diversity in the nursing field, important for improving outcomes.

Dr Carla McKenzie, dean of the Nashville campus of Galen College of Nursing

“What Galen wanted to do in Nashville was make an intentional impact in this community. How do we meet the needs of the Nashville community by educating even more minority nurses for careers in nursing?”

It’s a goal that feels personal for McKenzie. “It makes me a little emotional,” she says. “As an African American woman, I never in my life had an African American teacher, until my doctoral program. People don’t understand what it’s like, and that you can’t see yourself doing something until you see someone who looks like you do it.”

For McKenzie, creating the pathway and representation is just step one. Many of Fisk’s students are first-generation college students, and don’t necessarily have a clear career path in mind.

The administration at Galen works to set up hospital tours for students to see different roles, such as nurses at the bedside or those in management. McKenzie is a passionate and joyful advocate of the profession – “Anyone who talks to me is going to want to do nursing, because I love nursing, and I’m going to convince you!”

“It’s really important to me that we are there for them, to walk alongside them on their career journey at every touch point,” she says, because the impact is exponential. When students of color pursue nursing, they become representatives of opportunity for their own families and networks and have a powerful impact on health equity and access in their communities.

“I’m trying to paint a picture that there is entire world of opportunity out there” she says.


Click here to learn more about Johnson & Johnson is working to diversify the nursing workforce at all levels and strengthen readiness to practice. To learn more about Galen College of Nursing, click here.

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