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How a Rochester program is helping nontraditional students overcome obstacles to health-care jobs

Taking inventory of untapped talent pools in the community, Mayo Clinic joined forces with Hawthorne Education Center, RCTC and other local organizations.

Suzana Deng is heading into her third — and final — year at Hawthorne, where she’s preparing to enroll in a nursing program at Rochester Community and Technical College.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

When Suzana Deng, 34, came to Rochester, Minnesota, in the winter of 2003 as a Sudanese refugee, she wound up at an education hub familiar among English Language Learners in town: the Hawthorne Education Center, the Rochester Public Schools’ adult basic education program. But she didn’t stick with her classes long.

Feeling more immediate financial pressure to help support her family members, Deng found board and employment at a meatpacking plant in Worthington and spent the next two years commuting home on the weekends. Eventually, she decided it was time to give Hawthorne another try. So she enrolled in the center’s literacy program and eventually settled on nursing as her career interest.

Now a mother of three little girls, Deng is heading into her third — and final — year at Hawthorne, where she’s preparing to enroll in a nursing program at Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC). It’s a stepping stone that’ll help her go from working part time at a nursing home to finding employment as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at Mayo Clinic, she hopes.

By entering the center’s “Bridges to Healthcare” pathway program, Deng is able to avoid having to take remedial coursework at RCTC — that’s non-credit-bearing coursework that still would have cost her thousands in tuition costs. And because staff on both ends of the pathway have worked to ensure that academic expectations are consistent throughout, Deng trusts that they’ve set her up for success once she transitions to college.

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“Hawthorne is a good place to start. They’ll help get you to the level you’re supposed to be,” she said. “They are so honest, because…. it’s better to tell you something to your face. Then you can fix it.”

This heightened level of collaboration to remove barriers for low-income and nontraditional students looking to find employment in the health-care field was recently recognized as a mark of innovation by researchers at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. There’s strong buy-in from Mayo, which has employed about 100 graduates from the program since August 2013.

“We were particularly compelled by how the program managed to coordinate among multiple stakeholders to address a critical employment skills gap – all the while targeting low-income adult learners, including immigrants, refugees, and minorities, that were eager to advance their education and career,” wrote Christina Marchand, a senior associate director at the Ash Center. “[We] were deeply impressed by the rate that participants not only completed their training, but at how many were able to obtain related employment in the healthcare industry. It is a real success story that we feel could be replicated by healthcare and hospital employers and adult education and community colleges across the country.”

Diversifying the health-care workforce

Home to the largest private employer in Minnesota, Rochester enjoys an unemployment rate of about 2.4 percent. But Mayo is always looking to attract and retain a more diverse workforce. One of the employer’s biggest challenges, says Guy Finne, human resources manager at Mayo Clinic, is filling all open entry-level positions that require no more than a two-year college degree.

Taking inventory of the untapped talent pools in the community, Mayo joined forces with Hawthorne, RCTC and other local organizations that were already looking to bridge this workforce gap.

“We know that by diversifying our workforce, we’ll be more competent in our care of an ever-changing population that we serve,” Finne said. “They have passion, dream, desires, skills and work ethic. We can take care of the rest. We can build up their skills and knowledge.”

Hawthorne Education Center
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
The Mayo Clinic joined forces with Hawthorne, RCTC and other local organizations that were already looking to bridge the workforce gap.

The health-care pathway that’s now feeding talent into Mayo and local long-term-care facilities, began as a much smaller initiative in 2010. Folks at RCTC had received grant funding to create a curriculum that would prepare students for a career at a place like Mayo. Staff spent time at the clinic shadowing employees and visiting with patients to get a better sense of what the jobs entailed. They also brought Hawthorne on board, with the hopes that those who graduated from the adult education program would enroll.

Early on, they hit a pretty significant roadblock: Hawthorne graduates were failing some of the basic reading and writing courses at RCTC. Traditionally, students who find themselves in this situation are guided into remedial courses. But leadership on both sides of the partnership recognized that this was an added barrier for low-income students who were trying to balance the financial responsibilities of caring for a family.

Program Manager Julie Nigon
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Program Manager Julie Nigon

“We knew from research that the longer a student stays in remedial, their success rate or ability to complete significantly declines,” said Michelle Pyfferoen, dean of career and technical education and business partnerships for the college.

Julie Nigon, a program manager at Hawthorne who helped develop the health-care pathway, says they decided to really flip the remedial coursework model on its head. Both parties agreed it was best if students mastered their reading and writing coursework at Hawthorne, for free, before enrolling at RCTC. That meant sharing teachers and smoothing out any disconnects in their curriculum standards.

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“We took their curriculum and married it to our methods of instruction and also modified what we were doing to have higher standards,” Nigon said. “We don’t underestimate our students’ abilities anymore. What’s the point in sending them to college if they’re not ready?”

Clear tracks, with layers of support

Today students can choose from a number of health-care pathways that start at Hawthorne and end in a postsecondary certificate or credential and job placement. The vast majority of participants start out in the CNA program, says Nigon. “We really push that as introduction to all health-care careers,” she said. “It gives our students the ability to get employed quickly.”

From there, they need to acquire their GED if they want to take their careers further. A number of other health-care pathways lay out the steps they need to take to pursue more advanced nursing credentials. And a couple of specialized pathways that continue through the Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences prepare students to become a phlebotomist or hemodialysis tech. Students are able to cycle back to Hawthorne at any point, to stack their credentials.

Given the diversity of the student population enrolled in the health-care pathway program, the alignment of support resources is key to student success. While at Hawthorne, an intake specialist helps them identify their career interests. They also receive support from a financial adviser who helps them apply for scholarships and financial aid for college. In this support realm, the United Way of Olmsted County and the Workforce Development Board of Southeast Minnesota both play integral roles as partners.

Hawthorne Education Center
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Today students can choose from a number of health-care pathways that start at Hawthorne and end in a postsecondary certificate or credential and job placement.

Students also have the benefit of continuity in teaching. Two Hawthorne teachers follow them to RCTC, where they team teach classes at the college and help ensure that students achieve mastery of the content. These teachers offer tutorials and special lab classes to students in need of extra support.

In order to make sure no details slip through the cracks, all partners have committed to attending one monthly, in-person meeting. That includes representatives from Mayo as well. It’s here that they discuss the big-picture items like funding, as well as problem solve on behalf of the student who can’t afford a new pair of shoes or whose car broke down.

“When it gets personal, suddenly people want to problem solve,” Nigon said. “It’s way beyond cooperating. We’ve all changed the way we do business to make this work.”