Rhode Island College Celebrates 50 Years of Nursing Excellence

Nursing patch on arm
Rhode Island College Impact

How has RIC's School of Nursing managed to maintain such a high degree of success over such a long period of time?

The year was 1970. The Beatles had just broken up, gas was only 36 cents a gallon and under the leadership of RIC President Joseph Kauffman, Rhode Island College offered its students the chance to receive a baccalaureate degree in nursing (B.S.N.) for the very first time. Little did Kauffman know that this new program would eventually become one of the most successful and popular in the college's history. 

The world looks a little different now than it did in the '70s, and so does RIC's nursing program. It has since evolved from a department into a school, serving not only undergraduate B.S.N. students but transfer and second-degree students as well. 

In the past decade-plus, RIC's School of Nursing (SON) has managed to develop a master's degree (M.S.N.) program, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program and four graduate certificate programs, while its students have kept a consistent pass rate of more than 95 percent on the NCLEX, the profession's national licensure exam. But that only scratches the surface of SON's success. 

What's the secret? How has SON managed to maintain such a high degree of success over such a long period of time? Well, we were wondering the same thing. So we reached out to faculty and friends – both old and new – to recall the challenges, innovations and triumphs that have shaped the school into the crown jewel that it is today. In celebration of its golden anniversary, we'd like to share our findings with all of you.

HOW THE SCHOOL OF NURSING IS DIFFERENT 

Rhode Island boasts an impressive number of colleges and universities for such a small state. So what attracts prospective students to Rhode Island College, particularly to its School of Nursing? 

The School of Nursing caters to a wider range of demographics than most nursing programs in the state, including second-degree and master's degree students. Many of RIC's nursing students are the first in their families to go to college. The school's geographical and financial accessibility have opened the door for members of all communities to receive a quality education. As a result, Rhode Island College has equipped thousands of students with the tools they need to become registered nurses, nursing administrators, clinical nurse specialists and more – without acquiring a lot of debt. 

Jane Williams, the School of Nursing's founding dean, who retired in 2018, sums it up pretty well: "RIC's School of Nursing has a unique culture nurtured by the faculty who offer extraordinary opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds to become the professionals they want to be." 

HOW THE SCHOOL OF NURSING IS GROWING 

Since its evolution from a department to a school in 2006, SON has produced more than 5,000 graduates and consistently leads the nation in exam scores and in-field performance.  

Its physical expansion, as well as partnerships with St. Joseph Hospital and the Providence VA Medical Center, have led to extraordinary opportunities for students and citizens alike to benefit from expert medical care. And while the school itself has grown, its graduates have thrived alongside it. 

Maria Ducharme is senior vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at The Miriam Hospital, but back in 1987, she was a new B.S.N. graduate. It's been 33 years since Ducharme walked, but she still remembers what it was like to have her goals realized through the nursing program:  

"I felt surrounded by people with purpose, determination and enthusiasm. They role-modeled advocacy, professionalism and continuous inquiry. I knew what I wanted to be, but RIC helped me to learn who I wanted to be."  

That realization propelled Ducharme into one of the top nursing management roles in Rhode Island. This was followed by an even more impressive achievement: effective Jan. 1, 2021, Ducharme will become president of The Miriam Hospital in Providence. She will be the first female nurse to serve as president of a hospital in Rhode Island. 

Today, RIC nursing students get to reap the rewards of five decades of innovation and growth – namely state-of-the-art facilities and expert faculty. As both alumni and faculty grow into leaders in their field, the SON continues to progress toward a brighter future as a workforce engine for the state. 

HOW THE SON IS PERSEVERING (IN UNPRECEDENTED TIMES) 

Nursing is an incredibly challenging and dynamic field, and, as such, nursing education must fight to remain equally challenging and dynamic. This can prove difficult when funding is tight or space is limited (or, say, there's a global pandemic). 

Despite all that 2020 has flung at them, SON's students and faculty have consistently succeeded against all odds. Professor of Nursing Debra Servello, SON's previous interim dean, proudly reports that SON "has maintained a greater than 95 percent pass rate on the NCLEX for the past five years, with some classes hitting 100 percent." 

When the pandemic twice prevented the school from holding its pinning ceremony – one of the most important traditions for nursing graduates – the faculty, along with the Student Nurse Association, made sure the third time was a charm, re-imagining it into a socially distanced "drive-through" ceremony held in the Fogarty Life Science parking lot in October 2020. 

The real challenge, it seems, is continuing to offer the unique experience on which the school has built its reputation. The SON is well-known for its personalized, hands-on learning, which depends on techniques that aren't entirely practical during COVID-19.  

As Servello notes, "Students who come to RIC often come to have in-person, face-to-face learning. The faculty have been challenged with quickly adapting to online learning." 

Nonetheless, the faculty remain undaunted.As they continue to implement new online learning tools, the SON faculty are unanimously hopeful that they will overcome obstacles and provide educational opportunities that are just as rich and fulfilling as ever. 

HOW THE SON IS CELEBRATING 

RIC's School of Nursing has a lot of reasons to be proud. To mark its anniversary, past and present faculty, staff and alumni gathered virtually in December 2020, to celebrate five decades of commitment to personal and educational excellence. Much like the pinning ceremony, this is a re-envisioning of a previously planned in-person event. There were guest speakers and an award ceremony, including the bestowing of the Jane Williams School of Nursing Achievement Award to its first recipient, Dean Emeritus Jane Williams, as well as a poignant oration by recently retired SON faculty member Anne Carty. 

Carty taught the first senior class back in 1973-74, when the nursing program was still in its infancy. During her time as a professor, she recorded important events that occurred in the department and compiled them in a series of rhymes.  

"For the 50th anniversary, I wrote a rhyme that presents the developments in the program from a historical perspective," she beams. "During the virtual event I read the rhyme." 

Of course, the online Golden Anniversary festivities wasn't quite as glamorous as the in-person celebration was intended to be. From what we gathered from planning committee member Assistant Professor of Nursing Geraldine DeNuccio, the virus didn't dampen SON's celebratory spirit. Faculty, staff and alumni celebrated both collectively and independently with toasts, speeches, well-wishes and, as DeNuccio muses excitedly, a little style. "I even purchased a new ensemble and wore something a bit glitzy and gold!" she says. 

HOW THE SON IS MOVING FORWARD 

RIC's School of Nursing has been incredibly fortunate to have such exceptional leadership over the past five decades. That trend continues with the recent appointment of a new dean of nursing (see sidebar), following the retirement of the revered Dean Emeritus Jane Williams. 

Williams stepped down after 13 years of dedicated and exceptional service at the helm. Her character and grace are considered unparalleled among her colleagues and students, and the partnerships and innovations that were implemented under her leadership have attracted national acclaim. Her achievements captured the interest of Gannon University Provost Carolynn Masters, who is bringing her 30 years of advanced nursing and administrative experience to RIC in her new leadership role. 

Dean Masters is entering this position during a very critical time in the school's – and the entire profession's – history. How will she respond to the challenges brewing on the horizon? Well, she expresses the sentiment that the SON has always expressed: Bring it on.  

"I want us to continue to be known as the leader in educating professional nurses and for excellence in all that we do," she says, adding, "because we do what is right, not what is easy."  

Elizabeth Sullivan is a senior at RIC; she is majoring in creative writing. To learn more about the School of Nursing's Golden Anniversary, or its programs, visit ric.edu/nursing.