“As far back as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be a nurse.”
For LaShuan Davis, who graduated in May from College of Lake County (CLC) and now works as an acute dialysis registered nurse for DaVita Healthcare at Advocate Condell Medical Center and Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, it was a dream that could just as easily have never come true.
First there was a baby and the need to find a job. Once in the workforce and anxious to improve her earning power, a degree in business looked like a smarter choice. But her heart was never in it, and eventually, the effort of juggling motherhood, work, and school took its toll, and she stopped taking classes all together.
The combination of tight finances, family commitments, and full- or part-time work derail many students’ plans to pursue a career in healthcare. And that’s bad news for northern Lake County, particularly in areas where residents who are newly eligible for insurance are seeking care. Waukegan, where Davis grew up, and Zion, where she currently lives, are federally designated as both healthcare provider shortage areas and medically underserved population areas.
“We are talking about two kinds of inequity,” says Christine M. López, M.Ed., executive director of community relations and stewardship at Rosalind Franklin University. “If we do not have enough providers of the same cultural background as the population, there is not only inequality of access to care, there is inequality of access to education. We’re working to address both.”
The vehicle for that work is the Educational Innovation Cluster: Health Professions Education Consortium, led by the university and comprising a total of nine local educational institutions—including College of Lake County—and three workforce development agencies. In May 2013 the consortium published a detailed healthcare industry and workforce analysis, the first step in its drive to increase the number of healthcare professionals in the county.
The report, funded by a grant from the Healthcare Foundation, examines three key factors: regional healthcare needs, existing educational programs, and workforce development. It pinpoints the occupations currently in short supply or likely to become so, and it includes hard data on employment, earnings, staffing patterns, and occupational characteristics. As important, it scans existing post-secondary healthcare education programs and evaluates the competencies that various healthcare occupations require.
Building on this data, the consortium is now working to develop strategies and best practices that will accomplish its goal: to turn regional need into regional employment opportunity for traditional and nontraditional students alike.
“The aim is to get students into these career paths more quickly and with less indebtedness,” says López. “Schools are sitting down together and writing joint curricula, giving students earlier work exposure through internships, looking at stackable credentials and multiple points of entry. We are developing agreements that will make a seamless pipeline for students who matriculate through different institutions.”
System-wide modifications like these are essential to students’ success, as LaShuan Davis’s experience shows.
“I was very fortunate,” says the 38-year-old mother of two. “From day one, CLC made sure that we knew what opportunities were available to us and what schools they were partnering with. They would have schools come in and talk to us about what was available out there, what classes we needed as prerequisites, and which of those classes we could take at CLC versus at the university for four times the amount.”
Earning an associate’s degree first makes sense for many adult students, and not just from the perspective of total program cost. Those who don’t finish a four-year program or have to interrupt their studies at any point are left with nothing to show for their effort, no interim credential that might improve their earnings capacity or keep them on a career trajectory.
With an associate’s in nursing, Davis says, “I can apply what I’ve already learned, and I can work and make money while I continue to learn.
“Being able to go to school and get this degree means so much for my family, financially. It really is a huge increase in salary. But it also means so much to me,” she adds. “This was my dream. And I wanted to be able to say to my children, ‘You know what? You can do whatever you set your mind to. It may not be easy, but you can do it.’”
A practical academic program, a Foundation-funded scholarship, and a long-awaited career in nursing have all fueled Davis’s determination to go further. In August, she began working on her bachelor’s degree.
“After I finish this degree,” she says, “I plan to continue. My ultimate goal is to be a nurse practitioner, working in my community. There are so many disparities in this area, so many people that are disadvantaged because of who they are and where they live.”