Saint Leo University’s first cohort of nursing students will get practical, hands-on experience thanks to a new partnership with AdventHealth. Saint Leo and AdventHealth have created a Dedicated Education Unit (DEU), which will provide nurse-mentors at AdventHealth Zephyrhills for the university’s nursing students. This is an innovative model in the Tampa area of Florida and leaders from both institutions believe this collaboration will be beneficial not only to the participants, but also to the patients and residents of the surrounding community. 

In the DEU model, AdventHealth nurses will serve as preceptors/mentors for the students, providing a personalized learning experience between the nurses and the nursing students. 

“This is a win-win for Saint Leo and AdventHealth,” said Dr. Kathleen Van Eerden, dean of the university’s College of Health Professions, who also is a registered nurse. 


On Tuesday, January 30, AdventHealth Zephyrhills welcomed Saint Leo’s first cohort of nursing students along with the nurse mentors, faculty, and hospital leadership for a luncheon at which time the students and nurses will get to know each other for a future “match.” 

"This collaboration with Saint Leo University is not only shaping the future of health care but also addressing the need for skilled nurses in our community,” said Gwen Alonso, Chief Nursing Officer of AdventHealth Zephyrhills. “Together, we are cultivating a generation of compassionate and highly trained health care professionals who will make a lasting impact on the well-being of our community."

The students will begin their clinical rotations with their preceptors this week at which time they will work 12-hour shifts side-by-side. Saint Leo nursing instructor Paige Porter also will be with the students for 12-hour shifts, Van Eerden said. 

Creating the DEU

Van Eerden met with Alonso shortly after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic had ended and discussed the concerns they both had in their respective positions. Alonso said maintaining sufficient staffing was the biggest challenge while Van Eerden said what worried her most was providing quality student clinical experiences. The two leaders then decided to explore ways to collaborate in order to meet both organizations’ needs. 

After some research, Alonso found that two other AdventHealth locations had implemented or were in the process of implementing a similar model to DEU at locations in Florida. From there, Saint Leo and AdventHealth formulated the plan to create a DEU to serve the university and AdventHealth locations in Zephyrhills and Dade City, FL. 

“From the AdventHealth perspective, they see us as a strong partner that is in their backyard,” Van Eerden said. “We have a fair number of students who are Florida residents and likely will seek employment in the area. For hospitals, it is expensive to recruit and orient new nurses. This DEU model places students on units only for Saint Leo. We are launching this spring at AdventHealth Zephyrhills on two units. Nurses who are interested in a closer mentorship arrangement will work with one or two of our students on their unit.

“The Dedicated Education Unit model from our perspective is positive because it will provide a realistic clinical nursing experience for our students,” Van Eerden added. 

The typical model includes a nursing instructor in the hospital with eight nursing students. Each student initially is assigned to one patient. The instructor rotates from student to student each shift. 

“It’s a barrier as it may take 15 to 20 minutes per student to administer medications because of all the supervision required,” Van Eerden said. “That results in medication administration taking the instructor a couple of hours. That is not ideal for anyone. And it limits the time the instructor has with students as well.”

With the DEU model, because the student is paired with their mentor, they actually work alongside that nurse. A typical registered nurse is assigned a caseload of patients and that number can vary depending on the shift and setting, but usually is more than one patient. 

“Because they’re working alongside the nurse, the nurse provides supervision of the nursing student who participates in all aspects of a traditional nurse practice role, from obtaining a report on arrival, to rounding, to monitoring each patient, to being involved in health assessments, to providing medications and nursing skills, teaching, and any other planning, implementation, and evaluation” Van Eerden explained. “The student gets the opportunity to participate in interprofessional consultations with a nurse, physician, physical therapist, occupational therapist, licensed practical nurse, speech therapist, and other professionals. 

“It’s a much more realistic look at what the role of the nurse is,” she continued. “When students graduate and get their first job, they're working with groups of patients, and they've got to prioritize and make sound clinical judgements. This really will enhance their ability to hit the ground running as a new graduate.” 

AdventHealth is fully committed to this model, Van Eerden said. “They want our students to be fully immersed in their culture,” she noted. “They want to make sure that they communicate the culture. It is very focused on the patient as a holistic being” — much like Saint Leo University’s focus on growth and health of the body, mind, and spirit. 

The DEU model positions any new hires among the graduates for a shorter orientation period. They will have been immersed in the hospital’s policy and procedures. “They'll be familiar with the role of the nurse in the institution. They will truly nurture the students as potential future nurses.”

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Not only did the university recognize the need for nurses when it launched the bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2021, but so did the Florida Legislature, Governor Ron DeSantis, area health care and government leaders, and several generous donors. They have provided additional funds to build the program and create learning spaces for the future health professionals. 

In Fall 2023, Saint Leo students began their junior year in the core nursing program nursing program classes. By the end of its first five years of operation, Saint Leo’s Bachelor of Science in nursing program is expected to add as many as 200 nurses to the workforce. 

The nursing program received funding from the state of Florida’s 2023-2024 budget — $740,000 —  to develop the program and address the critical nursing shortage in the state. More than $520,000 also has been raised from private donations, bringing the total raised for the nursing program to $1.26 million. 

Becoming a Nursing Student
The Bachelor of Science in nursing is a limited-access program. Freshmen are admitted to Saint Leo as pre-nursing students, and admission requires a 3.0 or better high school grade point average (GPA) and an acceptable background check. Students can be admitted into the pre-nursing program at Saint Leo’s University Campus during fall and spring semesters.

To be considered for admission to the Saint Leo Bachelor of Science in nursing program, applicants must submit an application the semester prior to the junior year and must meet minimum admission requirements for consideration. The strongest applicants will be selected; meeting minimum requirements to apply does not guarantee selection.

For more information about admission to Saint Leo University, email or call (800) 334-5532.