LEONARDTOWN, Md. – The College of Southern Maryland’s (CSM) Continuing Education and Workforce Development team and the St. Mary’s County Nursing Center (SMNC) mark a three-year partnership in 2023 that outlasted the crisis that inspired it.
The partnership started as COVID 19’s effects were rippling across the country in 2020 and it became clear that the nation’s nursing homes were facing potential crisis. CSM and SMNC collaborated to create solutions that resulted in upskilling of the SMNC staff, creating a solid workforce pipelines for the center, and the two organizations now celebrating its third cohort of student-employees who continue to provide focused patient care.
“I would have not been able to do this on my own,” ayres said. “There is always a light at the end of the tunnel and for me, and for my children, this was that light.”
The plan was simple, and powerful. SMNC began hiring entry-level employees as Residential Care Assistants (RCAs), a role that allows them to perform many tasks of a Geriatric Nursing Assistant (GNA) that don’t directly touch the nursing home residents. While in that role, employees became students who entered into CSM’s GNA program with support from CSM’s Workforce Development Sequence Scholarship. With the financial support from the scholarship, student-employees were compensated to study and attend class, as well as receive mentoring aimed at honing their skills in the classroom and in the workforce.
“This program has helped to eliminate the barriers that students face and encourage their success with mentoring,” said Kelly Winters, executive director workforce development for CSM. “It’s a win for everyone, and especially for the most vulnerable population among us, the residents of long-term care.”
“There isn’t just one significant piece of the program that gets students to the finish line,” said CSM Healthcare Program Manager Sarah Butler. “This partnership is a true team effort.”
Staff Development Coordinator at SMNC Sharon Nicholson said that mentoring students from the moment they begin their education helps to grow them into a high-caliber employee who can make a big difference in the lives of nursing home clients.
“For a lot of these students, this is the first college class they’ve ever taken, but if your heart is in the right place, we can work with you to help you complete this program,” Nicholson said. “They’re learning how to plan, how to balance their time, what expectations are and what happens when expectations aren’t met. We are building a caregiver that has integrity, honesty and professionalism.”
For CSM Alumna Olivia Ayres ’22, the program has been a lifeline.
The single mother of three from Callaway said she was struggling when she first arrived in Nicholson’s office. Within an afternoon, Nicholson had helped her secure public assistance, including funds for rent and childcare, and in doing so created the stability she needed for her educational journey. Ayres recently completed the GNA program and is now working toward her goal of becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse and a Registered Nurse.
“Becoming a GNA is a step toward my goal to better understand the field from a caregiving perspective rather than just a nurse,” said Ayres, who is pictured right. “I feel like it will make me a better nurse, so that once I reach my goal, I can better help my GNA’s and residents and be the best nurse that I can be,”
Nicholson said that the CSM/SMNC partnership has been a huge success for nursing home residents, too; having staff on hand to do everything from hand out ice water to help paint resident’s fingernails has a compounding effect on health and happiness.
She noted that guiding students through the program is ultimately more efficient than constantly recruiting new workers in a field with historically high turnover in a tight labor market. Students who complete the program receive the same hiring bonus as other new GNAs and the benefit of a close cohort who go through the program and work days together.
“You have to grow new people into these roles,” she said. “If you want to keep people, you have to mentor and coach them so that you’re at a different level than someone who just offered them a job. Our GNAs have established this relationship of working together and are invested in each other’s success.”
Winters said that the trust between CSM and SMNC to do right by the students while following the myriad regulations that govern nursing assistant training is what has made the program a success. The close relationship between the two institutions also allows them to work with students more effectively. For example, CSM Financial Aid Advisor Frances Raynes keeps Nicholson up to date on whether students have completed their scholarship applications so that they can work together to make sure that students receive all the funds they are eligible for.
“Typically, a hurdle for students is completing the whole application and gathering the specific documents they need,” she said. “We want everyone to complete their scholarship applications and complete them on time, so the fact that the students are getting reminders from both me and their employer is a great part of this partnership.”
This partnership, with its emphasis on working with local stakeholders to creatively solve problems and meet the needs of the local workforce, is a model for the kind of role CSM strives to play in the community.
“Collaboration is key and a vital part of watching our students grow from the classroom to contributing to the healthcare needs of the community they live and work in,” said Butler. “It is our hope to continue to build our partnerships locally resulting in a stronger community network.”
And aside from benefitting the broader community, this partnership is improving lives, one at a time.
“I would have not been able to do this on my own,” Ayres said. “There is always a light at the end of the tunnel and for me, and for my children, this was that light.”