Rural Nursing Student Sticks Close to Home

05/30/02    LA GRANDE, Ore.

Distance-learning classes help Burns native stay rooted in her community

Burns native Jenny Gonzalez won't stray from her hometown after graduating from the OHSU School of Nursing, La Grande Campus, with a bachelor of science in nursing on June 15. She'll launch her nursing career this summer at the Harney District Hospital in Burns, thereby filling an important niche in rural health care. Gonzalez said the nationwide nursing shortage is felt most acutely in rural towns, and besides, "I'm a small-town girl," she said.

Indeed, not even nursing school pulled Gonzalez away from Burns. She was one of six students in her 30-member graduating class who participated mostly from their hometowns across eastern Oregon thanks to the OHSU Rural Frontier Delivery (RFD) Program.

This program provides baccalaureate education to students in rural communities in the hope that students will, like Gonzalez, remain in their communities after graduation. It is offered to students through the distance learning delivery system at Eastern Oregon University, and utilizes local community resources for clinical learning experiences. The RFD opportunity eased the degree path for Gonzalez, a 29-year-old wife and mother of two small children. She participated in weekly eight-hour classes via satellite and traveled to La Grande at least twice a quarter. "I found all my instructors approachable and knowledgeable," she said. "The training OHSU gives you is excellent."

Part of her training involved 10-week clinical rotations in various aspects of nursing care -- including pediatrics, surgery and pharmacology -- performed at facilities in or near Burns. Most challenging for Gonzalez was the mental health rotation, during which she spent two days a week at The Kirkland Institute, a Burns-area institution for abused boys. There, Gonzalez was asked to help improve the anger management and memory skills of a smart but troubled 12-year-old.

Sharon K. Schmidt, R.N., P.M.H.N.P., Psy.D., assistant professor of nursing, directs the Psychiatric-Mental Health class at the La Grande Campus. She says the mental health rotation is designed to allow students to interact therapeutically with patients, collaborate with a treatment team, appreciate cultural issues, gain knowledge of medications and understand the role of community support systems. It also enables students to practice applying theories of health behavior change they learn in her class.

"Learning that health behavior change occurs in stages helps students guide patients through mental health skills such as expressing feelings or practicing assertiveness techniques," said Schmidt. "It also helps students influence behavioral changes, such as diabetics changing their diets. In either case, these interventions may ultimately save a life."

Gonzalez emerged as a prime example of how to successfully apply the theory, Schmidt said. With the help of a supportive staff and an already motivated client, Gonzalez established a rapport with the 12-year-old boy that greatly increased his desire to improve. "She was a powerful change agent," Schmidt said.

Gonzalez said the experience provided her with a more nuanced picture of the mental health field and useful lessons she can apply as a nurse. For example, she said she learned to be more compassionate and less judgmental in working with people with mental health problems. "It was a real eye-opener for me. I learned a lot about myself and my biases." It also earned her the Rural Nursing Award for her outstanding work.

After graduation, Gonzalez will apply physical and mental health nursing techniques at the 15-bed Harney District Hospital. Eventually she hopes to return to school and become a nurse practitioner -- while always remaining close to home. "It's important to have people rooted in the community," she said, calling the RFD program a vital part of OHSU's nursing education. "To train your own is so beneficial."

Graduation information for the OHSU School of Nursing, La Grande Campus:
Convocation and Awards ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. on June 14 in McKenzie Theatre of Loso Hall. Graduation will be held at 10 a.m. on June 15 at Community Stadium.Both events will be held on the Eastern Oregon University Campus.

Thirty students will graduate with bachelor of science degrees (22 on-campus students, six Rural Frontier Delivery students and two associate degree nurses who have earned their bachelor's degree). Four students will graduate as family nurse practitioners.

For more information about graduation, contact Lory A. Graham at 541 962-3801 or lgraham@eou.edu.

###