Dr. Kathleen Van Eerden, dean of the College of Health Professions, and three dozen students will be making Saint Leo University history next week.

The cohort of women and men comprise the first class of pre-nursing students in Saint Leo history. These students are starting on a pathway to graduate in four years with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, pass the national licensing exam, and be welcomed into the employment market as registered nurses.

Van Eerden has been instrumental in launching the College of Health Professions at Saint Leo and in planning and implementing programs to meet an ongoing need for health care professionals in the Tampa Bay region and across the country.

Nursing is the most popular College of Health Professions program option so far in terms of enrollment, Van Eerden said. Several factors may account for this appeal, including media awareness of an ongoing nursing shortage. That is not to suggest actually entering the profession is easy, however. Students have to have strong high school grades to be admitted to the pre-nursing program, a "B" average or higher, Van Eerden said. One incoming freshman, Ky'Onique Thomson of St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, for instance, surpassed strong competition to win a $2,500 scholarship awarded through the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands.

Once admitted to the university, pre-nursing students have to perform well on the arts and sciences foundation courses and required anatomy and physiology courses, college algebra, statistics, and microbiology. At that point, they apply for admission to the nursing program itself, which begins in the junior year with nursing courses with theory, lab, and clinical components. Application for the junior/senior level nursing courses requires a minimum university grade point average of 3.3; grades of B or higher in college algebra and anatomy and physiology courses; a minimum score on a standardized nursing admission exam; and a commitment not to smoke. The most well-qualified students will be selected for the nursing program.

Throughout, the curriculum focuses on a Culture of Health philosophy, which promotes overall health of individuals, families, and communities in addition to a program emphasis on the well-being of the nurse.

Van Eerden said she is eager to make contact with the new students within their first few weeks at Saint Leo. In addition to a welcome session she hosted previously for incoming students, she will greet students at a "Meet the Dean" hospitality table to be set near the Student Community Center clock tower from noon to 2 p.m., on Thursday, September 2, which falls during the first week of classes.

She hopes the nursing students will stop for a brief chat, and ask her any questions they have.

Van Eerden will also be offering a student success orientation in September. She will speak with students about how to position themselves for academic success in their pre-nursing courses and address study strategies and resources.

The dean is excited about the impact that health professions students will have on the Saint Leo University campus community. "I anticipate an energy level supportive of a health-and-wellness outlook, which will build on the university's already strong emphasis on health and wellness," she said.

Van Eerden also believes that the nursing program will be popular with prospective transfer students who have the prior academic background and qualifications to be admitted into the nursing program, and begin the upper-level coursework along with the Class of 2025.

Health education careers

The College of Health Professions also provides another degree program at University Campus, the Bachelor of Science in health education and health promotion. It shares some commonalities with nursing: a liberal arts foundation, a four-year course of study, course requirements including anatomy and physiology, and a Culture of Health emphasis. Students will also have experiential learning real-world learning activities. Rather than becoming care givers, as nurses are, health educators put their knowledge to use in educating members of the public.

They need a curriculum that will allow them to take a passion for health and successfully convey that knowledge. So they enroll in classes on designing courses for the general public; implementation and evaluation of community courses; working with diverse populations; understanding human motivation; health promotion across the lifespan; workplace wellness; and incorporating health and wellness technology.

Program graduates may be employed at community health agencies, businesses, advocacy groups, or health care agencies to support health and wellness education needs. The health education and health promotion degree was first offered in Fall 2020 on University Campus. Students can also transfer into this program.

Online respiratory therapy degree coming

Van Eerden is also coordinating development of an online program, the Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy. Admitted students will be working adults who are Registered Respiratory Therapists with an earned associate degree in respiratory therapy.

Respiratory therapists are members of health care teams and they specifically assist patients with lung diseases and disorders. Their work involves direct patient contact and use of special medical equipment. Their role has become more visible since the first wave of COVID hospitalizations, but other conditions prevalent among people with acute and chronic illnesses also require respiratory therapy care. The upper-level coursework Saint Leo will provide will give these professionals additional specialized knowledge, and prepare them to become leaders in the field. Van Eerden noted that demand is increasing for respiratory therapists with this level of education. The online format allows the much-needed professionals to stay at their current workplaces and obtain a bachelor's degree on a schedule that suits them. The program is expected to start in Spring 2022.