Community Colleges: Building a Healthier Health Care System

community college healthcare students

Community colleges in Riverside and San Bernardino counties are saving lives. With a projected growth of more than 28,000 nursing and nursing-related jobs over the five-year period through 2021, local community colleges are playing a critical role in providing the training and education needed to put new nurses to work.

“Whether you’re talking about acute care, home care, or clinics, everywhere you look there is a demand for nurses, and that demand is going to continue growing for years to come,” said Victor Valley College Nursing Professor Sally Thibeault. “Community colleges are at the head of the class in making a difference in the workforce.”

In honor of National Nurses Week in May, we thought we’d share a few stories illustrating how our community colleges are having an impact.

Brandon Sumrall

Brandon Sumrall, 43, was working as a Visual Merchandising Manager, responsible for window displays and in-store marketing at Macy’s, when he came to the conclusion that his career path was lacking in fulfillment. He resolved to find something more meaningful. He found the nursing program at Riverside City College.

“RCC had the reputation for having an excellent nursing program, the school sits on a beautiful campus, and…the college was really just a few blocks away.”

That was in 2009. After completing his prerequisite courses, he enrolled in the nursing program in the spring of 2010. Less than two years later, he graduated at the top of his class, passed the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), and was immediately hired at Riverside University Health Systems Medical Center in the Emergency Department, where he continues to work part-time.

But Sumrall, the first person in his family to go to college, wasn’t done.  He returned to school, earning his bachelor of science in nursing from California Baptist University, which enabled him to teach community college students completing their clinical assignments at Riverside University Health System Medical Center and other community partners. That was followed with a master’s degree in nursing, with a focus on education, through an online program offered by nonprofit, Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University.

Two months after securing his master’s degree, Sumrall was hired as a full-time instructor at Riverside City College, where he teaches third-semester nursing students.

“The individuals I met and the professors I had, from the first time I stepped onto that campus, have had such a profound impact on my personal and professional development that I always wanted to come back and teach here,” Sumrall said. “That has always been my goal, and I couldn’t be happier helping to guide a new generation of health care professionals.”

“Community colleges in general, and Riverside City College in particular, offer an exceptional opportunity that is second to none, in both quality and cost-effectiveness, in putting our students at an advantage when looking for a job and in the workplace,” Sumrall added. “I am a proud graduate of Riverside City College, and I can testify to the fact that a great majority of nurses we employ at Riverside University Health Systems Medical Center are from the community colleges in our area.

“Our hospital highly values Riverside City College graduates.”

Laura Kelley

Laura Kelley spent 11 years as a stay-at-home mom before re-entering the workforce and finding a job at a local Target store. Two years later, she decided she wanted to do something more meaningful, leading her to find work as a nursing assistant at St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley.

It was while she was caring for and comforting a critically ill patient that her life changed.

“His story just touched me,” Kelley said. “It made me realize how I just wanted to be there for people who were struggling and were looking for more time that they could spend with their family. I wanted to make a difference.”

Kelley began taking online classes at Barstow College before enrolling in the nursing program at Victor Valley College in the spring of 2015, determined to become a registered nurse. She continued working full-time, when she could, at St. Mary Medical Center, to support herself and her children. Meanwhile, she was attending Victor Valley College and completing clinical assignments at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, Victor Valley Global Medical Center, Desert Valley Hospital, Kaiser Permanente Fontana Medical Center, and Community Hospital of San Bernardino.

Her determination paid off in June of 2017, when Kelley graduated with more than 60 other nursing students. She passed the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) last August, and has been at St. Mary Medical Center’s Surgical Unit ever since, doing everything from reviewing charts, ensuring patients are taking their prescribed medications, helping them go to the restroom, checking on vital signs, and more.

Kelley’s work is not done. She has since enrolled in the online Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program at Cal State Dominguez Hills. And she is entertaining thoughts of following her mother’s footsteps as a nurse practitioner.

Her oldest child, an 18-year-old daughter, will be enrolling at Victor Valley College in the fall.

“Laura represents the best of what our community colleges have to offer,” Thibeault said. “Not everyone has the time or the money to go straight to a four-year college or university. A lot of our students are working, are caring for family, so we’re serving a population that is often overlooked, and yet the quality of our programs is just as good as what you might find anywhere.”

Gari Hewitt

Gari Hewitt was just five classes shy of earning a bachelor’s degree when she switched gears, put her education on hold, left her job as an insurance adjuster, and embraced her new role as a stay-at-home mom. When her second child began preschool, Hewitt went back to school, this time at Mt. San Jacinto College.

Hewitt saw the purpose in her husband’s career as a paramedic, and she was encouraged by her nurse friends who said she would make a great nurse. “I wasn’t so sure — I didn’t know how confident I was in being able to do it. But I thought I would give it a try. At the very least, I might pick up some useful knowledge that could help me in caring for my kids or in caring for my family.”

First came the one-class-at-a-time prerequisites. “I took an anatomy course, and I loved it,” Hewitt said. “So I just kept going at it.”

Hewitt graduated May 25, 2018 with an associate degree in nursing. Her plans call for finding a nursing position near her Canyon Lake home, adjusting to her new position, then earning her bachelor of science in nursing and moving on to a master’s program. “I’m pretty open as to where I’ll start working,” Hewitt said. “I figure there’s a reason I’ll end up where I end up, and I’ll do the best I can and learn as much as I can along the way.” “Eventually I would like to move into a leadership position and become a nurse educator.” Learning is her motivation.

She is set to take her NCLEX this summer, and she is well-prepared for her journey. Hewitt’s clinical rotations at Mt. San Jacinto took her to Riverside Community Hospital, Riverside University Health System Medical Center, Rancho Springs Medical Center, Patton State Hospital, Hemet Valley Medical Center, and Life Care Centers of America.

“You keep waiting for the one rotation that you’re not going to want to do, but that didn’t happen,” said Hewitt. “I loved them all. I learned from them all. And I loved each experience with patients at them all.”

Hewitt praised the nursing program at Mt. San Jacinto, where close to 95 percent of students pass the NCLEX each year.

“It has been a great experience,” she said. “I’ve built some amazing relationships and an awesome support system with the faculty and staff and my cohort. We’re a very tight-knit group.