Plans to produce more health practitioners in Merced County, a place that desperately needs them, are finally coming to fruition. In January, Merced College expanded its well-regarded registered nursing program in two significant ways.

The college already has a longstanding relationship with Mercy Medical Center, where 30 RN students do clinical training each semester. Another 30 per semester will now train at Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock, doubling enrollment to 60 per semester or 120 per year.

The other expansion began in Fall 2022. The college’s nine-week bridge course, for current Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN) to earn their RN degrees, will now accommodate 32 annually, double the number from before.

“We are a community college that is truly invested and takes pride in training nurses,” said Lauren Marson, MSN, RN, PHN, and Registered Nursing Program Director at Merced College. “It can be difficult to find nurses who are still committed to the work after the pandemic. Meanwhile, Merced College is doubling down.”

Merced College offers three distinct nursing pathways.

Registered Nurses

An associate’s degree in nursing at the college takes four semesters to complete. The training prepares students to offer technically advanced care as an independent practitioner and to supervise LVNs, CNAs and home health aides.

RNs assess patients’ health and psychosocial needs, and develop care plans with attainable goals to improve patient health and quality of life. The full scope of practice for RNs in California is set down by the Board of Registered Nursing. RNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to practice in the U.S.

For the Merced College LVN-to-RN bridge course, applicants need an LVN license, a passing score on the latest Test of Elementary Academy Skills (TEAS) and all RN prerequisites to be eligible for admission.

“Our graduates have great reputations,” Marson added. “We have administrators from all local hospitals calling us, wanting to offer our graduates very competitive jobs. I am blown away and humbled by the support we are receiving.”

Licensed Vocational Nurses

LVN training takes three semesters or 18 months to complete. Each Merced College LVN cohort begins in August or January. The program prepares LVNs to take the NCLEX-PN, annually given in June or July, and pass it to practice in California. 

This description of the scope of practice for LVNs, who work under supervision from RNs and physicians, comes from the California Department of Human Resources. It refers to working in a state-run facility, but the typical tasks can be applied in any setting.

Vocational Nursing Program Director Claire Alvarez, RN, MSN-NE, works with full-time instructors Saly Suleiman, RN, MSN, and LaTresha Thompson, RN, MSN, and 10 clinical assistants to train 40 LVN students every 18 months. There are roughly 80 total being trained per year.

The LVN program boasts one full-time classroom instructor for every 15 students and two clinical instructors for every eight. It’s quite personal instruction, which is why Alvarez keeps a photo of an instructor and student engaged in deep conversation at Mercy with her.

“That photo embodies the LVN program right there,” she said. “It shows how we come alongside and literally walk with students. We tell them, ‘We’re going to stretch you and push you and challenge you, but we’ll be right there to guide you, so you can be a fantastic nurse in any environment.’”

Certified Nursing Assistants

The California Department of Public Health requires Nurse Assistant Training Programs to include theory and practical training that emphasizes elderly care and takes place in skilled nursing or extended care facilities, like Anberry Transitional Care in Merced and Country Villa La Sierra Care Center in Los Banos.

It takes 18 weeks to earn a CNA certificate and prepare for the NATP certification exam. The program is offered each semester. There is also a condensed summer session that presents the full program over nine weeks.

On average, Merced College trains 150-160 new CNAs each year. There are no prerequisites to take the CNA program. Students can start the program at age 16, and once they are a high school junior. Also, anyone with CNA experience gets an extra point if they apply to the college’s RN program. 

The college waives tuition fees and financial aid for CNA students who qualify, and CNA Program Director Xochitl Tilley, RN, FNP, says most students do. There are also programs to pay for equipment like stethoscopes or blood pressure cuffs if students can’t afford them. 

“This is an entry-level program, and all types of students come to this training,” Tilley said. “They may feel overwhelmed about where to start. But student services at the college are comprehensive and can handle just about any need the students have.”

Job Prospects

The RN and LVN skill set fits anywhere nurses are needed: hospitals, clinics, jails, cancer centers, home health care, schools, etc. Alvarez added that LVNs often work multiple jobs at a time throughout their careers. The need for nurses with either license is that high.

CNAs are also needed everywhere—hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, psychiatric facilities, urgent care, as well as travel CNA opportunities.

“CNA training offers job security,” Tilley said. “It’s great training to have. Even if they aren’t working in the field, they will always have caregiving skills. A CNA has the training to care for loved ones if that need ever arises.”

The public health of the Central Valley depends on getting enough nurses to care for locals after pandemic stress forced many out of the industry. Nursing students also had to postpone parts of their training due to the pandemic.

Merced College didn’t take as big a hit as other programs. Mercy Medical Center encouraged the college to continue sending students to train on site to gain a full understanding of what nursing is like.

Another selling point that Marson, Alvarez and Tilley all boast about is the diversity of their faculty—in age, background, experience and medical specialties. Students pursuing nursing at the college will not lack inspiration or options as to where to take their nursing career.

What is the forecast for nursing in 2023?

“We haven’t recovered from the effects of the pandemic,” Marson said. “We are at a precipice, a changing point, right now. But it’s wide open. It’s uncharted.  

“What we know is nursing will be very team-based. Now more than ever, we need to get the next generation to fall in love with nursing. We need to help students understand why it’s so rewarding to care for your community. The time for motivated and caring individuals to join this field is now.”

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