When she was 14 years old, experiences dealing with family illness, time spent in healthcare settings, and the example of her family’s nurse practitioner in Rocker combined to convince Ashley Parnell that she wanted to be a nurse.

So while she was still in high school, she started taking classes that would prepare her to get into Montana Tech’s nursing program, which at the time granted students an associate’s degree in nursing.

“But then when it came to apply,” Parnell says, “things just didn’t align for me.”

By the time she was able to get her application in, it was 2016, and Montana Tech had made a major change to its nursing program: Instead of offering an associate’s degree, Tech was launching a new pre-licensure program that offered a bachelor of science in nursing.

At the time, the program change came as a surprise. But two years later, minutes after completing her final exam to earn the bachelor’s, Parnell calls it “a blessing in disguise.”

On Saturday, Parnell and eight other students will officially accept their degrees, becoming the first graduates of Tech’s two-year-old bachelor’s program. This summer, these nine expect to take the national nurse licensing exam known as NCLEX. They will be eligible to start working as nurses with no further classes to complete or tests to take. Students with an associate’s degree, on the other hand, often have to complete more schooling or clinical hours while they are also beginning their nursing careers.

“And we just busted it out, right in one thing,” Parnell says.

In addition to streamlining the process, Karen VanDaveer, Montana Tech’s director of nursing, says the new program allows students to delve more deeply into their coursework and expands their employment options after graduation.

While many medical facilities hire nurses with associate’s degrees, VanDaveer says, “The bigger facilities that are either (American Nurses Credentialing Center) Magnet status or centers of excellence do typically require a bachelor’s degree.”

Parnell has already been hired on at one of Montana’s few healthcare facilities with Magnet status, the Billings Clinic, as has her classmate Lacie Thomas. And they both credit the Tech program with helping them get these positions.

“Tech really helped us get that job,” Parnell says. “That was both of our first choice. And they saw Tech, and they were interested in us immediately.”

Their fellow graduates have also had success finding work. Three have accepted jobs at Butte’s St. James Healthcare, Summit Surgery in Butte, and in the neuroscience trauma unit at Salt Lake City’s Primary Children’s Hospital. The other two are seeking positions out of state.

VanDaveer says the bachelor’s degree program is growing rapidly. Next fall, she anticipates there will be 100 students in the program plus 100 taking prerequisites for it and 35 enrolled in an online bachelor’s program. And VanDaveer is confident future graduates will continue to find work.

“It’s projected that in health care, there’s about 450 jobs a year that are available in Montana,” VanDaveer says. “The need nationwide is over a million a year. The jobs are available, and they’re going to be there for the foreseeable future.”



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