When Shelby Gudgell graduated high school and left Valdez for college, she knew she wanted to one day be a nurse. But once in college in Oregon, she felt far removed from family and other support systems she had back in Alaska.
That’s how she came to be a nursing student at University of Alaska Anchorage’s School of Nursing program, which in Valdez operates in conjunction with Prince William Sound College. She is one of five students in a cohort taught in her hometown.
“Because I am an Alaska resident, my tuition is a lot cheaper than pursuing a nursing program in another state,” said Gudgell, 22. “PWSC gives me the opportunity to stay in a town I know and love, have a small class size, work in the local hospital, and have a supportive professor.”
Encouraging aspiring nurses is what Providence Health & Services Alaska had in mind when it chose to provide funding for the state university’s nursing program, particularly the programs operated out of smaller communities. In 2018, Providence helped fund the program in such small communities as Kotzebue, Bethel and Valdez, funding advanced training tools, high-quality instruction and access to large-hospital rounds in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Kelly Mitchel is the lead instructor for the nursing students in Valdez. His job includes overseeing the current cohort, as well as teaching anatomy and physiology, microbiology and medical terminology.
“I’m in a unique position here because I cover anesthesia at Providence, and I also teach the nursing students,” said Mitchell, who has taught since 2013. “It’s kind of a cool thing to see that — to start with them from the very beginning and have them pass their boards and then they are working at the hospital.”
For Gudgell, the decision to continue her nursing career locally has given her unanticipated advantages.
“I never imagined that I would end up back in Alaska, especially my hometown, to finish my schooling,” she said. “However, I am so glad that I did. If I had chosen to go to nursing school in the Lower 48 like I had planned, I would not have had as much support and nursing opportunities as I have had here.”
Because the community is so small, the staff at Providence Valdez has gotten to know the five nursing students well, Gudgell said. She doesn’t feel like yet another pair of scrubs when staff members know each other’s names and often those of their family members.
“The hospital is very welcoming of us during our clinical hours, and invites us to engage in extra learning opportunities for health care professionals,” Gudgell said. “Both PWSC and Providence Valdez have contributed to our studies and careers by offering scholarships, medical equipment for our lab, and nursing simulations.”
That personalized care up front has helped create well-rounded and loyal employees, Mitchell stressed.
“Nursing students who went to nursing school here in Valdez tend to stay here longer than if we hired a RN from another community or the Lower 48,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he also has found that the locally trained nurses have a “larger footprint” than RNs from other areas.
“Most RNs specialize in a particular area – pediatrics, emergency room, etc.,” he said. “The Valdez RNs cover the emergency room, trauma, obstetrical, acute care, psychiatric, long term care, pediatrics and even ICU nursing – whatever comes through the door.”
Mitchell said outreach campuses are located throughout the state, and Providence’s support of locally accessible education is paramount to providing more stable, high-quality health care for patients.
“When I poll these students the majority of them are going to stay here,” he said, “giving back to their communities.”
Gudgell, for instance, will be working at Providence Valdez Medical Center upon graduation. Eventually, she may move on to another hospital, but for now, she said, Valdez remains home.
“My dream job is working in a labor and delivery unit or a postpartum/nursery unit in a small hospital or medical center. While I prefer a smaller hospital setting (like Valdez) with a smaller staff-to-patient ratio, I know bigger hospitals can be a safe and healthy environment, too.”
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