From Rural Practice to International Settings, College of St. Scholastica Prepares Students for Competent Care across Borders

In a city isolated by the rolling roads and lingering cold of the Minnesota, the College of St. Scholastica (CSS) sits atop Lake Superior, mentoring, preparing and challenging more than three-thousand students for life outside of school walls. Rich in history, Duluth has survived major economic and social setbacks to become the successful port-city that it is today, and home to nearly 85,000 people.  Since 1912, the College of St. Scholastica has served as a health and educational center for Duluth, a town with more than 8,000 employees at two area hospitals. With such a large presence in the health care sector, the College of St. Scholastica understands the value of a highly trained and motivated class of nursing students paving its way toward the health profession.

In the eight years that Dr. Sheryl Sandahl has held tenure at the College of St. Scholastica School of Nursing, she has watched the undergraduate department expand in ways she couldn’t have imagined. A traditional curriculum that once served only 60 students per class, the school of nursing is projected to accept 112 traditional nursing students and 42 post baccalaureate nursing students in May. Increases to faculty and staff have allowed the school to also grow both its master’s and doctor of nursing programs, shaping them into some of the largest and most competitive within Minnesota.

Part of that expansion has been made possible with the help of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation New Careers in Nursing grant (NCIN). In May 2009, the College of St. Scholastica selected its first cohort of six post baccalaureate nursing students to receive the NCIN scholarships. More than half way through their first year with the program, the accelerated degree students have been able to achieve great success.

“Our students recently completed their rural focus fall semester where they performed clinicals in rural hospitals around Minnesota. They were active participants of the rural health workforce and learned firsthand how to manage and provide care,” explained Dr. Sheryl Sandahl, director of the post baccalaureate nursing program at CSS.

Course work for this type of semester focuses on what makes a rural setting different from an urban one and how to accommodate the specific needs of these communities. With a large and underserved rural population in Minnesota, students are able to see for themselves the urgent demand for the community-based care they aim to provide.

A recent college graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth, Andrew Trom was approached by university nursing faculty to apply for the NCIN scholarship at the College of St. Scholastica. Now a fully immersed student and scholar, Trom has enjoyed his exposure to a multitude of leaders and experiences through the school. He recently wrapped up his rural semester outside of Duluth and participated in a 10-day service learning trip to Belize with 19 other post baccalaureate nursing students. CSS volunteers were onsite to offer care and educate villagers about preventative measures toward better health. 

Trom’s most surprising discovery was the value of a simple resource.

“Tylenol went a long way.”

The NCIN scholar reflected on his activities abroad.

“Most of the time we spent traveling to small villages and doing routine checkups. We gave out worming medicine and antifungal creams, and in some cases, antibiotics. Our NP advisors were there to administer and help us along the way. The language barrier was tough but the little Spanish I knew helped out a lot.”

Trom hopes that experiences like these can help guide him to a profession beyond traditional nursing.

“I want to take this further than an RN license. My hope is to go to medical school or participate in a holistic nursing program.”

Just like her student, Dr. Sandahl was encouraged by others in the community to pursue nursing. After spending years as a staff nurse in a neonatal program, Sandahl went back to school for her master’s and is now a pediatric nurse practitioner. While she regularly practices at the student health service, most of Sandahl’s time is spent in teaching and administration.

“When I took over the program about three years ago, I was interested in seeing how students would respond to the opportunities in front of them and how past life experiences would merge with their education,” said Sandahl. “Diversity is so important.”

What she found was a determination and passion among all of her students that has made the program so successful. The NCIN grant has allowed CSS to admit four male students into the post baccalaureate program and Dr. Sandahl hopes to use scholarships to tap into Duluth’s sizeable Native American population for the next round of cohorts. Dr. Sandahl was also surprised with the number of first generation college students applying for NCIN scholarships, most of whom represent the children of northern Minnesota’s old mining towns.

“There are many more opportunities now than there were way back when we started. It’s going to be really fun for me to see how these students progress. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has really helped to expand the program and create a great model within the school.”

To watch the College of St. Scholastica’s series on the service learning trip to Belize, click here.