Kathy Falkenhagen

Excellence in a time of struggle

By Bill Knief

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These days, nothing is easy. In recent weeks our community college has been challenged to justify and defend the very existence of community colleges in our state, while suffering major cuts in funding of essential programs such as dual credit for high school students and the developmental courses that are fundamental to student success. Some go so far as to maintain that the state’s budget is being balanced on the backs of New Mexico’s students. So when the word came in last week that all 14 graduates of our brand new nursing program had passed their national boards the first time out, it was a rare opportunity for celebration.

“We couldn’t be prouder of our students, or more excited for the future of this program and all that it means to our college and our community,” announced Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill. “This is a key component in economic development. Our mission is to train local people so they can live here, learn here, stay here, raise their families here and contribute to the fabric of the community.”

Here’s why this is so important: just a few years ago our nursing program was nothing but a strategic planning concept on paper, and now every one of the first cohort of graduates has passed their national boards. Kathy Falkenhagen, MSN, RN, Director of Nursing and head of the nursing program, explained:

“I think we can say it is a measurable example of our program being among the top nursing programs in the nation,” she said. “In order to keep our accreditation through the New Mexico Board of Nursing, we are required to have an 80 percent pass rate for graduates taking their National Council Licensure Exam to become registered nurses. I would say it is very unusual for a new program to have a 100 percent pass rate the first time around. Nationally, the pass rate is about 81 percent. These graduates are a very close group. I believe they will be an even closer alumni group, and they certainly have set the bar high for future classes.”

Falkenhagen attributed their remarkable success to the personal attention provided by a highly qualified and experienced nursing staff, the state-of-the-art equipment and “our partner, Holy Cross Hospital, all of the clinical personnel that helped train our students, and the 17 clinical sites throughout Taos County.”

The clinical sites—Holy Cross, Mountain Home Health Care, the Pediatric Clinic, the Public Health Department, some of the mental health facilities in town, Los Angelitos, the Detox Center, Family Practice and others—are the medical facilities that each student rotates through to gain hands-on healthcare experience.

“Everyone in the community has been supportive of training and helping prepare these students,” Falkenhagen continued. “Everyone wants to see them succeed. In the administration Dr. Kate O’Neill, Dean of Instruction Jim Gilroy and Dr. Marty Hewlett got the program going with legislative support from Senator Cisneros and Representative Gonzales. Angelina Flores (MS, RN) served as a full time equivalent from Holy Cross to support the program. Faculty included Dawn Kittner, MSN,RN; Judy Lockwood, CNP, RN; Lisa Bushnell, MSN, CFNP, RN; and Cynthia McGee, BSN, RN. ”

So now these new RN’s are able to give back.

“Out of the 14 students that graduated and passed their boards, ten were hired to work at Holy Cross Hospital. One went to Mountain Home Health Care, one will be doing missionary work in India, one student has relocated to Spain to do international nursing and one student returned to practice in her home town in North Carolina.”

With a nursing shortage so severe our hospital has had to bring nurses in from out of state, the economic benefits of the UNM-Taos nursing program are as substantial as its benefits to society. The starting salary for an RN is in the mid fifties, and with eleven new nurses practicing and living in Taos County now, this is good news for all of us.

Yet, incredibly, on the same day it was announced that the last graduate had passed his boards, it came out that the legislature had cut all nursing expansion funds in half in the 2012 budget. For-profit nursing programs can cost four and five times what students pay at community colleges, where they can live and serve in their own communities.

In a time of struggle, when budget priorities are out of sync with the real needs of New Mexico communities, we can’t let this vital program falter.

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