Westmont nursing students Jennifer Velas and Reggie Gonzalez examine a practice "patient." (Courtesy photo)

The first nursing students at Westmont College have graduated and are ready to take on the challenge of caring for others’ medical needs day in and day out – a job that requires plenty of patience, compassion and skill.

“If you’re looking for a profession that is fulfilling, you need to look no further than nursing,” said Reggie Gonzalez, who graduated May 6. “For some patients, you’re with them on the best days of their lives; for some, it’s the worst days of their lives.”

Gonzalez is one of eight Westmont students who graduated with a bachelor of science in nursing degree, qualifying them to work as registered nurses (RNs).

The 27-year-old Santa Barbara native had known for several years that he wanted to go into some type of health profession, attaining a bachelor’s in kinesiology from Westmont in 2018.

But after working in orthopedics and planning to go into physical therapy, he reconsidered and decided to apply to this new program.

Nursing appealed to him, but the financial aspect also helped sell him on the switch. Physical therapy school would take longer and cost a lot of money, he said, and nursing had a better debt-to-income ratio.

His cohort began the 16-month Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program in January 2022, when COVID-19 was still a major influence, and nursing jobs across the nation were experiencing many vacancies.

“A lot of nurses left the field because of how traumatic it was,” Gonzalez said.

Still, others were motivated to answer the call and begin training for this job.

Applying to the nursing program during the pandemic was a testament to the students’ dedication to the profession, said Dianthe (Di) Hoffman, interim director for the nursing program.

“It showed that these students really want to take care of people, they really have compassion, they want to serve,” she said. “They know that in this job we do have to make sacrifices, and we do have to be giving, we have to kind of put ourselves at a little bit of risk …”

Hoffman explained that the program was born out of need. Cottage Health approached Westmont with the idea to help address the nursing shortage, and Cottage has been an integral and supportive partner throughout the process.

A lot of the students’ clinical hours are completed in Cottage facilities in various specialties. Sansum Clinic is another partner.

“There was such a need in the community – and there still is – for nurses, and Westmont is helping to fill that gap and that need that we have in the community,” Hoffman said. “It’s a pandemic in and of itself, the nursing shortage right now.”

Because these students already have a bachelor’s degree under their belts, they enter the nursing program with a special focus and drive to complete the ABSN. The accelerated model pushes them through faster than some other programs, helping to get qualified nurses into the workforce sooner.

These eight students are the first to have graduated from Westmont College’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. (Courtesy photo)

“It is a very fast program,” Hoffman said. “They really hit the ground running. It’s just go, go, go.”

Students rarely had time to hold down jobs while in the program, and hobbies and family time were limited by the rigorous class schedule.

“It definitely consumes your life,” Gonzalez said. “Once you’re in school, it’s all you think about. You owe a lot of people a lot of time at the end of it all. It takes a toll on a lot of things, your family, your friends.”

At the same time, the program provided student support and instruction in self-care so that these future nurses would have the training and know-how to take care of themselves in order to better serve their patients, Hoffman added.

The low instructor-to-student ratio and small class size immediately created a bond among participants. Other cohorts that have started in the meantime were limited to 24 students to ensure that same experience.

Classes took place in Westmont’s downtown building on Anapamu Street, about a mile from Cottage Hospital. Working in the hospital gives students a good idea of how things really work.

“Basically, every single floor of the hospital has Westmont students at some point in the week…” Gonzalez said. “There’s over 950 hours of clinical experience over the course of 16 months.”

For Gonzalez, the introductory period was fast and furious, but he immediately knew he was in the right place.

He and his fellow students gained hands-on experience in a wide variety of specialties, from critical care to mental health – even working with the homeless alongside the Santa Maria Public Health Department.

As part of that first cohort, Gonzalez said, he and his classmates were able to help shape the program with their feedback – which the school took seriously.

“I feel very honored and blessed to be a part of it,” he said.

Other graduates were Laura Acevedo, Trisha Beaudin, Michaela Root, Gracie Stokes, Jen Velas, Megan Wahrenburg and Anna Wallace.

Several already have jobs lined up. Some eventually will go on to pursue a master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner, nursing instructor, or several other advanced positions.

“With nursing, there’s no limit to what you can do,” Gonzalez said.

Cottage’s new grad program guarantees nursing graduates an interview as part of the collaborative agreement.

“I can see them doing great things,” Hoffman said. “All of them have great qualities about them, and they really feel passionate about serving the community, both locally and globally.

“A few of them want to go on mission trips to go on and use what they learned in nursing.”

Gonzalez specifically hopes to work in an intensive care unit (ICU), where he would be able to devote his attention to a small number of patients with acute needs.