Diversifying Health Care: Cooper University Health Care Employees Work Toward Earning Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing from Rutgers University–Camden

By Ed Moorhouse

Rutgers-Camden/Cooper Collaborative

The Rutgers–Camden/Cooper Collaborative for Upward Mobility in Nursing is providing baccalaureate education to unlicensed, assistive personnel employed at Cooper University Health Care.

As an emergency room technician at Cooper University Hospital and a certified emergency medical technician, Shanta Rembert spends every day of her professional life on the front lines of healthcare.

Her job is an important one and, Rembert says, “it gives me a sense of satisfaction knowing that I can have a positive impact on some else’s life.”

But taking the next step and becoming a nurse always seemed out of reach to Rembert, as it does for many of her colleagues at Cooper who are working full-time jobs as assistive healthcare personnel.

A collaborative between Rutgers University–Camden and Cooper is changing that.

Rembert is part of a unique pipeline program that is growing a diverse workforce of baccalaureate prepared nurses from historically underrepresented populations. The Rutgers–Camden/Cooper Collaborative for Upward Mobility in Nursing allows assistive health care personnel working full time at Cooper University Health Care to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden.

“The financial burden of school held me back for years and without being able to work overtime it just seemed like it could not be done,” says Rembert, a Haddon Township resident. “Many of the nurses I worked with would say, ‘go get your nursing degree,’ but I was scared to do it alone because I was older and have been out of school for years.”

The collaborative has made it possible for a cohort of Cooper employees to earn their bachelor’s degrees from Rutgers–Camden while working full time. It is being funded by a $250,000 grant awarded in 2014 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) through its New Jersey Health Initiatives: New Paths to Professional Nursing program.

Students receive tuition support and a stipend to cover personal expenses that can often be a barrier to seeking advanced education.

Shanta Rembert is one of seven Cooper University Health Care employees working on earning a bachelor's degree in nursing from Rutgers-Camden.

Shanta Rembert is one of seven Cooper University Health Care employees working on earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Rutgers-Camden.

“Without the RWJF grant I might have never made it here due to my fears of going back to school,” Rembert says. “The grant applied the sense of urgency and structure I needed to get me started again. I truly feel like this program was designed for me to succeed without worrying about how I would be a full-time student and work a full-time job at the same time.”

Out of 65 applicants, 10 Cooper employees with at least two years of full-time healthcare work experience were selected for the program. During the fall 2014 and spring 2015 semesters, students in the cohort took college preparatory courses at Rutgers–Camden consisting of courses in English, math, and the life sciences, as well as weekly seminars to build academic skills.

Upon successful completion of the curriculum, seven students were admitted to the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden during summer 2015 to begin their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

“If we want a diverse workforce, we need to be able to give more healthcare professionals access to higher education,” says Lynne Borucki, a clinical associate professor of nursing and program director of special projects who oversees the collaborative for the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden. “This is helping people who are already in the healthcare field achieve a goal of becoming a professional nurse. This program will be a life changer for this group.”

Borucki says five of the students came into the program with experience in the operating room, emergency room, or on Cooper’s medical/surgical floor, and two others are unit secretaries.

“They’re all carrying at least a 3.0 GPA while working full time,” Borucki says. “The students in this cohort will serve as role models for our traditional students in addition to the healthcare professionals that still want to seek out their bachelor’s degree.”

Unlicensed, assistive personnel at Cooper include patient care associates, critical care technicians, patient companions, unit secretaries and transporters. More than 80 percent of the employees who serve Cooper in these capacities are from underrepresented populations in the health care profession and are predominantly African American and Hispanic.

“Cooper is committed to offering pathways to employees who would like to become nurses,” says Jane Ryan, a nurse research manager at Cooper who works with the institution’s academic partners on projects such as this collaborative. “Part of Cooper’s mission is to provide equal access to opportunities that help them achieve that goal, especially to those from underserved populations. It’s a way to help them advance their careers.”

“They are remarkable individuals,” Ryan says. “They’re driven and determined and have stepped up to do everything they can to achieve their dream.”

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree is becoming essential for nurses throughout New Jersey and across the country in order to deliver on exceptional nursing care and improve patient outcomes. Borucki says the need for baccalaureate educated nurses is even more critical given an increasing nursing shortage.

“Research has shown us that when patients are cared for by baccalaureate prepared nurses, their patient outcomes are better,” Borucki says. “Institutions around the country are recognizing that and putting a premium on improving patient outcomes, which means they want more nurses with a bachelor’s degree.”

While the RWJF grant covers two years, Borucki says the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden is seeking other funding opportunities to assist the students in the cohort for the remainder of their baccalaureate education.

“I think many of the students were scared coming into the program because it is a big commitment, but this gets them over a hurdle and allows them to attend a top research university to earn their degree while they are working,” says Tyshaneka Saffold, a clinical instructor for the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden who is serving as an academic mentor to the students in the cohort. “This is a special group. As I tell them, they belong here. I tell them that every week.”

For Rutgers–Camden/Cooper pipeline students like Rembert, there is no doubt about it.

“The opportunities for nursing are limitless,” Rembert says.

For more information about the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden, visit nursing.camden.rutgers.edu. For information about Cooper University Health Care visit cooperhealth.org.

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