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NTC's practical nursing program marks anniversary

When Alice Thompson studied nursing in the 1960s in North Dakota, her training included equipment maintenance techniques such as sharpening injection needles that were sterilized and reused.

As nursing techniques have changed in the past 40-plus years, so has Northwest Technical College's practical nursing program. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the school's practical nursing program receiving Minnesota Board of Nursing approval.

"At that time, there were really only a few professions that women went into," said Thompson, who retired from NTC in 2004 after working at the school as a practical nursing instructor for 26 years.

She said women in the 1960s primarily worked as nurses, secretaries and teachers.

A decade later, the practical nursing program experienced two changes during the year of 1978-79. The program had its first male student and the nursing students began wearing pantsuits as uniforms.

This spring, 16 percent of the students enrolled in the practical nursing program are male, said Rhonda Bender, nursing program director at NTC.

"I think nursing is a good paying job and I think the image of nursing is changing," she said, noting that nursing is viewed as a challenging job requiring skill. "I think more men are realizing that you can be in a caring, nurturing profession and still be masculine."

As technology has evolved, the practical nursing program at NTC has also evolved.

"When I began here 18 years ago, there were two computers in the building," Bender said.

Now, all students in the nursing program are required to have their own laptops.

Simulations of patient scenarios in the lab have also become more advanced throughout time. Bender said NTC now has sophisticated patient simulators that present more realistic simulations for nursing students, which leads to better critical thinking and clinical judgment skills.

While practical nurses have always served as bedside nurses providing patient care, technical nursing skills and intense patient monitoring, their use of technology on the job has changed from the past, Bender said. The technology now used by practical nurses includes monitors, sensing devices and electronics.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the school -- then called Bemidji Area Vocational Technical Institute -- offered a nine-month practical nursing program, Thompson said.

"They would start in the fall and finish in the end of May," she said. "And there were only 16 to 20 students per class."

She added, "There was very, very little flexibility."

Bender said there's more flexibility in the practical nursing program now.

"Students can attend full time or part time," she said, noting that full-time students can complete the practical nursing program in three or four semesters. "They can take some courses online."

The number of students enrolled in the program has grown throughout the years.

"We have 242 practical nursing students right now," Bender said. "We graduate about 80 to 90 students per year."

Climbing the ladder

Since the school's nursing program began, the opportunities for nurses to advance their education have expanded.

Practical nursing students who become licensed practical nurses can now pursue registered nursing right at NTC. Last fall, the college began offering an associate in science degree in nursing to prepare students to become registered nurses.

Starting as a certified nursing assistant student at Bemidji AVTI, Bender has used a similar educational ladder to advance her career. This path brought her back to the very campus where she began her nursing studies -- this time as a faculty member.

While in high school, Bender attended courses at Bemidji AVTI to become a CNA. She then continued to study to become a LPN and graduated from the school's practical nursing program in 1983.After working as an LPN for a couple of years, Bender finished an associate degree in nursing, graduating from Northland Community College in Thief River Falls in 1986.

She became a registered nurse and later received a bachelor's degree in nursing from Bemidji State University in 1991 and a Master of Science degree with a family nurse practitioner specialization from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

In 1990, Bender began working as a practical nursing instructor at NTC -- then called Bemidji Technical College. Not only is she now the nursing program director at NTC, but she is the chairwoman of the college's Health and Human Protective Services Division.

Like Bender, NTC students who graduate with an associate science degree in nursing and become registered nurses can to apply for BSU's R.N. to Baccalaureate track to earn a bachelor's degree in nursing.

Display open at NTC

As part of National Nurses Week, which began Tuesday and runs through May 12, and the 40th anniversary of the practical nursing program, NTC has created a display of nursing equipment and uniforms representing changes in nursing throughout the past 40 years.

Some items on loan for the display came from Ah-Gwah-Ching Museum in Walker and are now owned by Cass County Historical Society while other items on loan came from Dorothea Noren of Bemidji.

The memorabilia will be on display at least through the end of June. The display is open to the public.

Celebration planned

This summer, NTC will celebrate the practical nursing program's 40th anniversary with a reunion celebration.

The Practical Nursing Reunion Celebration will be held June 6-7. All graduates and former faculty members and students of the program are invited to attend as well as all current practical nursing students and faculty members.

Bender said the celebration will give NTC the opportunity to honor nursing alumni, show them how the campus and facilities have changed and recognize how the school has contributed to the region's health care workforce.

Early registration for the celebration ends May 15 and the final registration deadline ends May 30. For an invitation or more details, call 333-6656.