New Blinn, A&M program hopes to help nursing shortage

A.J. Willingham had been working as a personal trainer and bartender in the Bryan-College Station area for nearly five years when the COVID-19 lockdowns required him to find a new


A.J. Willingham had been working as a personal trainer and bartender in the Bryan-College Station area for nearly five years when the COVID-19 lockdowns required him to find a new career path.

“I felt like there was a bigger calling to be heard,” Willingham said. “Only essential workers were working and I was like, ‘Well, that’s something I want to be involved with. I want to be essential to something.’ So, I decided to revamp my drive for school to cater it towards health care and nursing was the idea I had in mind.”

Having been a personal trainer, Willingham, 29, said he had always had a general interest in personal health but that it was the lockdowns that ultimately brought him into the world of nursing.

“During the pandemic, you saw all these stories about what [nurses] were dealing with and how understaffed they were and just how much they were able to help people,” he said. “Also, I had friends in health care that were doing all these same things and I was like that sounds like something I’m really interested in.”

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In the summer of 2021, Willingham said he began working as a patient care technician in the ER at St. Joseph Health Regional Hospital in Bryan and began noticing a trend among some of the best nurses he was working with.

“I was working around a lot of other nurses that had come through the Blinn program and I really admired them in the way that they were able to handle their situations,” he said. “The amount of knowledge and the breadth of knowledge that they had really inspired me.”

Almost three years later, Willingham is set to become one of the first students to graduate from the Aggie Student-Centered Express Nursing Degree (ASCEND) Program, created via a partnership between the Blinn College District and Texas A&M University School of Nursing. The new program allows students to concurrently earn their associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) and bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) by taking part in curriculum from both institutions.

Karla Ross, the director of associate degree nursing at Blinn, said that although the ASCEND Program had been in the works for several years, the national nursing shortage caused by the pandemic accelerated the process.

“All we hear about is the nursing shortage these days in our nursing circles,” Ross said. “We wanted to make sure that there was some way that we could help retain people who are interested in nursing.”

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), one of the leading causes of the nursing shortage is a lack of nursing school facilities, with over 91,000 qualified applicants being turned away in 2021 alone.

Another concern is burnout from COVID. Ross said it’s a dual problem that on the one hand creates more job openings while simultaneously placing more strain on the nurses who remain.

“Since the pandemic, it’s become, I think, more apparent that nurses right now are going through a lot of tough challenges at work,” she said. “I think that it is worrisome for nurses as they are going into the profession.

“They’re wanting to be as prepared as possible because they’re getting into it for a reason. They know they love to help people … but they are concerned because they go into the hospital to do clinicals and they hear from nurses about the burnout they’re experiencing.”

Since 2013, the College Station Baylor Scott & White Region has been working with A&M and Blinn to bring nursing students in for clinicals. Baylor Scott & White Chief Nursing Officer Jana Elliott said those students have been critical to addressing the local nursing shortage.

“We’re very energized about what we are seeing in the Brazos Valley,” Elliott said. “Baylor Scott & White acted quickly during the pandemic to create additional paths to working in nursing here in our medical center. … We hire nursing students and give them firsthand experience while they are still in school.”

Currently, over 180 nursing students are working in Baylor Scott & White hospitals and clinics in the College Station Region, according to Baylor Scott & White. The relationships built through on-the-job training received at Baylor Scott & White often translates to further post-graduation job opportunities, Elliott said.

“We are so blessed to have two strong nursing programs in our community, so it’s exciting to be able to take students that are local and then we train them to become nurses, and then hopefully they come to work here,” she said. “It’s really great for our community to be able to keep people local and so we are just really excited about the opportunities that we have.”

Dr. Wendy Greenwood, the registered nurse to the BSN program coordinator for the A&M School of Nursing, said the ASCEND program was born out of a similar mission between Blinn and A&M.

“There is a recognition out in the community, especially in rural health, that there is a tremendous need to elevate practice and to improve outcomes,” she said. “It is a good kind of symbiotic relationship to have our community college to kind of feed into this other program that we have to help these individuals.”

Providing students with a BSN for A&M also comes with a proven track record of success, Greenwood said.

“We know that our graduates very quickly move into leadership positions,” she said. “Part of that is because of Texas A&M’s core values, but also how we teach them to not be so task-oriented and to look around them and to be problem solvers.”

For Willingham, he said the ASCEND program has taught him the importance of leadership and how to manage the daily stresses of nursing.

“There are times when you are just tired … there’s a lot of tasks being asked of you that you have to be able to face and deal with adversity,” he said. “I think there is a lot where leadership kind of comes in and then we can help assist the unit in not feeling so overwhelmed. We can correct the flow. We can make things more streamlined. If you’re just banging your head against the wall doing challenges every day, that gets really old.”

Even though Willingham’s full graduation from the program is not until December, he said he has already accepted a job at the level one trauma center at Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin as hospitals across the county are still trying to fill positions.

“Usually they kind of start this whole process because orientation for a new grad nurse is rather extensive and long,” he said. “Plus, with the shortage, everyone is short so if they already know they need these nurses, they’re going to go ahead and start trying to find them earlier to catch them before other people do.”

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