A Brief History of Veterans' Time at GW

GW Nursing veteran students
05/15/2020 10:15

A GW colleague recently told Catherine Cox, associate professor of nursing, that one of the students in her lab is among the dozens with prior military experience whom Dr. Cox mentors. The student was confident he could pass the competency in taking blood pressure, and everyone in the class understood why when he said he had been an IDC. What, the colleague wondered, is an IDC?

A retired Navy nurse of more than 30 years, Dr. Cox explained that independent duty corpsmen have advanced training and deploy on ships in lieu of nurses or physicians. “They’re called ‘Doc’ on those ships,” she said.

For Dr. Cox, as well as for many of the students with prior military experience—whether active duty, reservists, National Guard or veterans—the motivation to join the military and to become a nurse may draw from the same desire to serve. 

“What’s really neat about being in the military is that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. When I joined the Navy, the slogan was ‘It’s not a job. It’s an adventure,’” Dr. Cox said. “It is dedicating yourself to public service for the nation. The military students have provided that service to the nation, but they also want to be a nurse and give service to the profession.”

On its 10th anniversary, the GW School of Nursing is a national leader in training nurses with prior military experience, and Dr. Cox and other faculty members said that GW’s commitment to veterans is diversifying the field. The veterans initiative brings in new students with valuable and rare skill sets and is helping the university better understand those who have served and what they can offer.

Students with prior military experience bring a worldly perspective to their studies, and they are used to working under pressure, said Gretchen Wiersma, coordinator of GW Nursing’s veterans initiative and a nurse of 10 years in the U.S. Army. “They don’t stress out about the same things other students do.”

There are other challenges and opportunities for military students. Mary Jeanne Schumann, associate professor of nursing said students who are veterans tend to stay silent rather than speak up, they often want to be told what is necessary to complete an assignment, and the “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” posture requires some recalibrating to produce nurses who challenge others’ thinking. But it’s also a group that supports one another. If someone struggles, others make time for that person on nights or weekends to help get the colleague back on track.

“They leave no one behind,” Dr. Schumann said.

It All Started With A Grant

When GW Nursing applied for and secured a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in 2014, the school launched a suite of support services and initiatives to better help those with military experience succeed in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.) program and, if students wanted, to subsequently transition successfully to a civilian career and life.Dr. Schumann served as principal investigator on the initial HRSA grant-funded program. The grant stretched to fund four-and-a-half years of services, even though it was initially billed to fund three, due to HRSA recognizing that it takes time to succeed when appealing to veterans who need to take prerequisites, and apply to complete a program of study.

“[Former] Dean Jean Johnson and I had already decided that whether we got the funding from HRSA or not, we were going to move forward with the accelerated B.S.N. program to really promote veterans coming into nursing,” Dr. Schumann said.

GW was successful, and the more than 150 student veterans it has attracted since represent a larger cohort than those at other colleges receiving similar HRSA grants. That’s because GW Nursing marshaled resources and personnel on a school- and university-wide level to help eliminate barriers for the students and to help them succeed, Dr. Schumann said.

First, GW created a “public face” for the program, so applicants could contact an admissions staff member who was well versed in the complexities of applying from the military. “They had a button to push and a person they could reach out to for expert advice,” Dr. Schumann said. 

Students must have 60 prior credits—including prerequisites in areas such as anatomy and physiology, microbiology, nutrition and statistics—to enter the accelerated B.S.N. program. GW Nursing helps applicants with military experience by counting their training and coursework toward prerequisite fulfillment, so not all veterans entering the program were IDC or even have prior nursing experience. 

Many applicants were corpsmen or licensed practical nurses and may have taken anatomy and physiology as part of their training. GW considers advice from institutions like the American Council on Education when it looks at applicant transcripts and determines what meets prerequisite requirements. “For many students, this is a huge benefit, because it’s at a cost for them in time and money to retake something they already took and have been practicing,” Dr. Wiersma said.

Buy-in from the dean and the rest of the university leadership is key, said Dr. Cox, who heard from a colleague at a different institution, where a dean stopped committing to a program for military students. The colleague saw an exodus of those students from the school as a result.

The students, whom Dr. Cox calls “military nursing students,” bring a unique skill set to the nursing classroom. “They tend to be a little bit older, a little bit more experienced. They usually have a global view,” she said. “They’re mature, have a strong work ethic and are very disciplined. They bring life experiences to the classroom.” They’re also used to working on teams, she said.

Even after the HRSA grant, the school’s commitment to continuing to encourage and support military students is helping diversify a profession in which just over 11 percent of nurses are men, per recent census data. That’s up from 2.7 percent in 1970, per other official data. According to recent data gathered by GW Nursing, 23 percent of the B.S.N. student veteran population is male.

“You want to educate and promote the diversity of the student 

body, so that when they graduate, they reflect the population for which we’re caring,” Dr. Cox said.

One student told Dr. Cox that he had started college 10 years ago but had dropped out because no one was looking out for military students, nor did anyone at that school understand VA benefits. By making the admissions process easier for veteran applicants and establishing dedicated support services for them, GW Nursing has proven its commitment to supporting veterans.

“I think that’s why our numbers and our applications have grown from military students,” Dr. Cox said. “Because the word is out.” Indeed, military nursing students are slated to represent about one-fifth of the incoming first-year class in the fall and spring semesters, she said. 

What's Next?

The school has also established partnerships that provide educational opportunities in veterans’ health care and promise to improve health outcomes. Kathleen Griffith, associate professor of nursing and assistant dean for the school’s Ph.D. program, spends 30 percent of her time conducting research at the Maryland Veterans Administration Health Care Center in Baltimore. Her grants include exercise-focused research studies for cancer survivors who have chronic pain. Among the research she and her team are implementing is a progressive exercise intervention using aerobic, strength and balance training to help transition veterans to exercise at home.

The Baltimore VA is also home to a geriatric nurse practitioner residency program, which has partnered with GW Nursing. Recent graduates of GW’s family nurse practitioner and adult-gerontological nurse practitioner programs receive preferential consideration for a one-year geriatric nurse practitioner residency. Veteran graduates are especially encouraged to apply, and graduates of the residency program are well prepared to provide specialized care to aging veteran populations.

Dr. Wiersma said the school is ideally situated to be a leader in sharing what it has learned about veterans and health care work with nurses in the larger community.

“It’s very rewarding to know that our program is doing so well even after the grant ended. We have figured out how to keep going and ensure the students’ success,” she said.