Josue Guzman dreams of becoming a flight nurse.

The nursing student at Northern Arizona University’s Yuma campus started his nursing education right out of high school and finished a certified nursing assistant (CNA) course at Arizona Western College, a community college in Yuma, 12 miles from his hometown. He loved nursing, he said, but when a well-paying computer technician job came along, he opted for that.

Fast-forward a few years—not in love with computers, Guzman returned to school, but could only go part-time, squeezing in classes, studying and homework between his full-time job. After six years of taking prerequisites and gathering application material, he applied to NAU.

“I’ve always considered myself a caring and compassionate person, and after taking the CNA course I realized nursing was perfect for me,” he said. “Knowing I could make a difference in a person’s life and family made me further seek a career in nursing.”

Guzman, who will graduate in May, is part of a nursing program that is growing in both size and reputation. Program coordinator Jason Bradley has spent much of his six years with the program engaging community members and stakeholders about NAU nursing and the benefits of finishing nursing school with a bachelor’s degree. Applications came in not only from the Yuma area but also southern California and throughout Arizona and the ability for the Yuma health care community to take in nursing students expanded.

All of those factors led to a candidate pool that was deep enough to enroll a cohort of 20 students in fall 2016 instead of 10. An additional 20 enrolled in the spring.

“Every semester I have been waiting for the applicant pool to warrant an increase because we need more nurses,” Bradley said.

Yuma’s nursing program opened in 2008 with two students. By 2010, 10 new students enrolled each semester, but the Yuma program remained one of the smallest of NAU’s on-site programs, with Tucson admitting 20 and Flagstaff 30 each semester. Even with students who don’t get into the more popular Tucson and Flagstaff programs applying, Yuma hasn’t had the capacity to increase its enrollment until now.

“The support of the Yuma community is probably the biggest reason we’re able to do this,” Bradley said.

The Yuma program partners with Yuma Regional Medical Center. Many classes are held on the hospital campus or with hospital resources, Bradley’s office is on the hospital campus, many clinical rotations are at the hospital and many of the program’s part-time faculty are nurses at the hospital.

This commitment is there in large part because NAU is training nurses who will stay in Yuma. Of the May graduating class, half—those not from Yuma or the surrounding area—will return to their hometowns. But the other half, all of whom are first-generation college students, will stay in Yuma, building their lives and giving back to this community.

“They will be staying in our community and they will be having an impact on the community,” Bradley said.

Growth statewide

NAU’s traditional nursing programs admit 150 students a year—80 in the fall semester and 70 in the spring semester. The American Indian program, which puts students in Fort Defiance for their first year of classes and encourages them to work on American Indian reservations after graduation, admits a class of 10 in the fall semester only.

The program is growing in other directions as well, said Pamela Stetina, interim director of the School of Nursing. Most of the growth is happening through NAU’s concurrent enrollment and online programs. Concurrent enrollment allows students to complete associate degree nursing programs at various community colleges while at the same time taking baccalaureate nursing courses at NAU.

NAU also offers a personalized learning program, which started in the fall and has 57 active students. The online-only program allows registered nurses to earn their bachelor’s degree, allowing students to work at their own pace and around a full-time nursing schedule. Faculty members are working toward an online personalized learning master’s generalist degree as well, Stetina said, and the School of Nursing also offers traditional master’s generalist and family nurse practitioner tracks and doctoral degree programs.

However the opportunity arises to enroll in an NAU nursing program, it’s a worthwhile program, said Sheila Gonzalez, a Yuma native who will graduate in May.

“Although they have increased the number of students accepted into the Yuma program it is still not a big class, which will help students get the help they might need since instructors don’t have as many students,” she said. “The NAU nursing program has not only taught me to care for patients in a variety of scenarios, but it has helped me with my leadership and communication skills, as well as building confidence. I would recommend the NAU nursing program to anyone interested in a nursing career.”

To learn more about the opportunities available to students throughout Arizona, visit NAU’s Extended Campuses website.