Bridging the Gap AIC, Baystate Health Partner to Boost Nursing Numbers, Diversity Statewide

As part of an ongoing effort to address the needs of underrepresented residents of the Springfield area, American International College has entered into a new partnership with Baystate Health and Springfield’s Putnam High School to provide new educational and career opportunities for disadvantaged students, and to address the Commonwealth’s pressing nursing shortage.

The Nursing Workforce Diversity Collaborative Project was announced on Sept. 18 at AIC by the college’s president, Vincent Maniaci, who explained that the program’s objective is to increase nursing education opportunities among minority and disadvantaged student populations, in turn creating a greater number of career options for those students.

A $1.1 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services will provide the necessary support for the program, which focuses on the early introduction of health-related careers to high school students, academic training, and financial assistance in the form of scholarships and stipends for qualified applicants.

“There’s no question that this is a home run,” Maniaci said. “We have an exceptionally strong nursing program at AIC, and we are committed to making education as accessible as possible to those living in our community.”

Maniaci said the partnership is also an effort to address the Commonwealth’s widespread nursing shortage. It is estimated that Massachusetts health care providers currently need to hire about 7,000 additional nurses statewide to close the gap, and that number is expected to grow incrementally over the next two decades.

The collaboration furthers the mission of Baystate Health’s Springfield Educational Partnership (BSEP), by creating a bridge between high school- and college-level preparation for health careers. BSEP, a 10-year community assistance initiative, pairs the health system with various Springfield public schools to advance the academic and career development of elementary, middle, and high school students, and to promote the importance of math, science, and technology skills to health-related career paths.

U.S. Rep Richard E. Neal, who helped funnel the federal funding into Springfield, said he sees the new partnership as one way to boost the number of employed individuals in Western Mass., through a long-term, incremental plan.

“When you hear those statistics: ‘A need for 7,000 nurses’ — that means there are 7,000 jobs available,” he said. “But that only means something if we are able to place people in those positions, and creating a link between education and the job market is a key part of the ongoing mission of creating widespread, gainful employment.”

Deb Morsi, vice president for Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer for Baystate Health, added that the project is also the kind of multi-faceted, inclusive program that is necessary to address such a pressing need for qualified health care professionals both in Massachusetts and nationwide.

“Nursing is an extremely challenging and complex profession,” she said, “and in order to address this huge nursing shortage across the country, nursing students first need appropriate support and academic preparation.

“To meet those needs,” Morsi added, “we need to be creative, and we need to start early, in the high schools. There are many intertwining parts, but it’s a long-term strategy, not a short-term fix. We want to increase diversity among the nursing workforce as well as lower the vacancy rates, but we also would like to address issues with clinical preparedness and turnover.”

Carol Jobe, dean of the School of Health Sciences at AIC, said the new collaborative program will include a four-week, part-time summer program for incoming freshmen enrolled in AIC’s nursing program, which will focus on improving verbal, math, and science skills as well as overall preparedness for the college experience and the rigorous nursing curriculum. Many of those students are expected to move on to AIC from Putnam High School, which is already involved in BSEP and has about 160 students enrolled in its ‘Health Academy.’

A student-tutoring program will also be established, pairing upperclassmen studying nursing, chemistry, or biology with freshmen nursing students, and faculty mentors will work closely with freshmen and sophomores. This, Jobe said, will not only help address specific academic issues students may have, but also attempt to curb attrition rates.

“The grant will help us address many needs,” she said. “Both high school and AIC students will benefit, and each student will be evaluated individually. The idea is to get students acclimated early and to maintain a high level of support throughout their college careers.”

The project is the latest offering at AIC geared toward diverse populations in the Greater Springfield area.

In October of last year, the college instituted its ‘Community Engagement Initiative,’ awarding $10,000, four-year renewable scholarships to homeowners and their children residing in the city’s Bay Area neighborhood, which includes portions of the State Street corridor, Mason Square, Tapley Street, and Roosevelt Avenue, and is home to more than 4,000 of the city’s 152,000 residents.

That announcement came weeks after Maniaci, who took the helm at AIC in August 2005, signed dual admission agreements with both Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College, opening the four-year college experience to a greater audience, allowing students accepted at either of the community colleges to continue their education at AIC after two years of coursework. The admission agreement also provided $4,000 scholarships to those students.

In addition to creating new opportunities for high school students interested in health care careers, Maniaci said this newest initiative is expected to boost enrollment in AIC’s nursing program by as much as 20{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}. Currently the program includes 350 students, and has the largest enrollment of any academic major at the college.