News & Stories
January 5, 2024

Preparing tomorrow's health care professionals

President's Pen



Dr. Stephen Briggs

Anyone who has weathered an extended stay in a hospital understands the essential role of physicians, who preside over your diagnostic and treatment plan. 
A key moment each day, often early in the morning, is when doctors make rounds, provide updates and answer questions.

Equally apparent is the vital role that nurses play in shaping your hospital experience and the delivery of your care throughout the day and night. Nurses are at your side when you are most vulnerable. If you require critical care, they take responsibility for your life-sustaining functions. They touch the places that hurt the most. While it is humbling to be dependent on an unfamiliar person, it is hard not to adore the nurses who attend caringly to you in fragile moments.

Nursing is a challenging career because it is a helping profession. Nurses take point when people are anxious, frustrated and impatient. The context can be complicated, and the standards are high.

Given a mounting need in our region for more of these important caregivers, Berry chose a decade ago to invest in a nursing program. The wisdom of this decision became apparent during the pandemic when the shortage of highly qualified nurses emerged as a nationwide concern.

Since 2015, 259 of our students have graduated with Bachelor of Science in Nursing degrees and now practice as registered nurses across the country in a diverse array of clinical specialties. As you would expect, many Berry nursing students are from Georgia (78%) and adjacent Southeastern states, and the majority have remained in this region (61% in Georgia). Of those in our state, about a quarter accepted positions in the Rome area and a third in the Atlanta area. In the last three years, 28% have been students of color and 12% men. Starting salaries for nurses are substantial, and few professions offer such an obvious alignment with an education of the head, heart and hands.

Berry’s program is distinctive
Fabian Cummings (21C) went to high school at Fulton Leadership Academy and was selected for Berry’s Bonner Scholars Program. As part of his scholarship commitment, Fabian served at Heyman Hospice as a member of an interdisciplinary team providing direct patient care. Observing the way that nurses cared for patients greatly influenced his decision to pursue a nursing degree. While a student, Fabian was able to work as a nurse extern at AdventHealth Redmond in the Cardiopulmonary Progressive Care Unit through Berry’s LifeWorks Program, a signature opportunity that accelerated his clinical skills.

Fabian Cummings (21C) now works as a registered nurse in the Emergency Room of Atrium Health Floyd Medical Center in Rome.

Today, Fabian is an emergency room nurse at Atrium Health Floyd Medical Center and is completing a Master of Health Administration degree. He credits his liberal arts courses with preparing him to understand the complex needs of patients from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, the kind he serves here in Northwest Georgia. He encourages prospective nurses to take full advantage of Berry’s partnerships and get as much clinical experience as possible. His advice is fitting, and last year, 90% of Berry’s nursing students were employed in paid clinical settings that complemented their clinical rotations. 

Berry’s nursing program is built on a foundation of academic rigor and evidence-based care. It incorporates challenging, real-world medical scenarios with advanced simulation exercises. What sets Berry apart, however, is its emphasis on an education of the heart in concert with the head and the hands.

Last summer, 27 nursing students travelled with faculty members to rural Kenya to experience firsthand the challenges of compassionate nursing in an unfamiliar context. The experience was appropriately disturbing as the team encountered a scope of illness and suffering that left them humbled and profoundly aware of how much we take for granted. As one student put it: “To make a difference in people’s lives was an incredible feeling, but the things Kenya did for us were just as valuable, if not more.” The benefactor for this trip, Berry Trustee Buster Wright (73C), noted simply, “It’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made.”

The nursing program at Berry also is distinctive in allowing students to enjoy a full college experience. Nursing students are immersed in their major for their junior and senior years. The sequence of courses, simulation exercises and clinical rotations is jam-packed. Yet, somehow, students are able to do more. Top athletes, for example, balance the demands of this program with the equally daunting pressures of championship athletics. It’s a remarkable feat of focus and time management made possible only by the collaboration and goodwill of the nursing faculty and coaches.

Current nursing seniors Anna Jackson and Shelby Daniel are both key players on Berry’s top-five nationally ranked softball team. Anna is a two-time All-American and the National Fastpitch Coaches Association 2022 Catcher of the Year, and Shelby is a three-time All-Region player and member of the NCAA All-Tournament Team in 2023. While their workload is challenging, Anna is resilient: “I’ve learned how to plan ahead, prioritize my schedule and communicate often with my faculty and coaches.”

A graduate program for physician associates
The current and projected shortage of physicians, nurses and advanced practice providers (APPs), including nurse practitioners and physician assistants/associates, is well documented, and Georgia lags national averages. There is no easy remedy for this shortage, but advanced practice providers, who are highly trained to provide medical services otherwise performed by physicians, will increasingly serve as first-line medical professionals in many general and specialized settings. It is normal today to see an APP at an urgent care or dermatology appointment, and they are involved with the delivery of anesthesia for many surgeries.

"Already, we have hired a top-notch team of faculty to lead our PA program. This team, working with an advisory council of local health professionals, is focused on educating and empowering physician associates who will deliver patient-centered care that is comprehensive and compassionate."

At Berry, we decided to establish a Master of Medical Science – Physician Associate (PA) degree program (an updated name for physician assistant) after studying local needs, career opportunities and the number of programs in the surrounding region. PA programs are highly competitive. Prospective students can be from any major but must complete the standard pre-med course requirements. The Board of Trustees approved the concept in October 2022, and our accreditation review is scheduled for late August 2024. If successful, we will accept applications in fall 2024 for an entering class in August 2025.

Already, we have hired a top-notch team of faculty to lead our program. This team, working with an advisory council of local health professionals, is focused on educating and empowering physician associates who will deliver patient-centered care that is comprehensive and compassionate. Admission preferences will include Berry alumni, veterans, and applicants from Appalachia and other medically underserved areas.

Great spaces inspire great learning experiences
The addition of the PA program and the continued growth of nursing calls for improved learning spaces at Berry. In recent years, the nursing program has taught half of its classes in Memorial Library. A new building has been designed that optimizes firsthand learning experiences and skill development.

Located along the west side of the road between the Cage Center and Valhalla, the facility will be named Morgan-Bailey Hall in honor of a lead gift and generous scholarship support from Audrey Morgan and the Bailey Family Foundation. Construction is scheduled to begin in March 2024. We intend to have the building fully funded before it opens for classes in summer 2025. Many generous alumni and friends are helping to make that a reality.

“Not to be ministered unto, but to minister”
A few years ago, Buster Wright spent a night in the hospital for post-operative care following a surgical procedure. His nurse tech that evening was attentive and proficient in providing the needed care. As her shift ended in the morning hours, she stopped in to say farewell. Buster thanked her and asked if she was off to get some rest after a busy night. She was masked because of COVID restrictions but chuckled and said she was headed to school for classes and then to a semi-formal dance that night. Buster laughed to himself thinking she must surely be an industrious Berry student. As it turned out, Ashlyn Ishoy (22C) was indeed, and he had the joy of thanking her again at graduation later that year.

Ashlyn now works as a mother-baby nurse at Atrium Health Floyd, caring skillfully for those in need – with her head, heart and hands. Worthwhile work done well.


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