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Innovative nursing program to build 4 Corners workforce

Tom Stritikus

Coloradans rightfully expect their colleges and universities to educate students and address critical needs facing our state. A new collaboration between Fort Lewis College and the University of Colorado not only does both but is also a unique, cost-effective effort that can significantly impact a regional and national problem.

Todd Saliman

The CU Nursing Fort Lewis College Collaborative aims to build a nursing workforce for the Four Corners region and reduce health disparities, focusing specifically on rural and Indigenous communities. The partnership blends the strengths of each institution to leverage our collective impact. Instead of creating stand-alone programs – a costly endeavor – we chose collaboration.

We are confident in the strengths we each bring to the table: CU’s expertise in the teaching and technology of nursing at Colorado’s flagship academic medical center, the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, and FLC’s strong track record in supporting diverse students and connections to tribal communities.

The first cohort of 24 students arrives this August, beginning their pre-nursing coursework with science and general education instruction with FLC faculty. In the summer of 2025, students will be admitted to the Nursing major and receive instruction from CU Anschutz nursing faculty for the final two years of their four-year degree. FLC professors will front-load liberal arts essentials, like critical thinking skills, before students move into a clinical setting for hands-on learning with CU Anschutz professors and regional health care professionals. While some coursework will be online, CU faculty will work in the Four Corners area to provide as much face-to-face instruction as possible.

Graduates of the program will earn a bachelor of science degree. They can also earn certificates in community health and Indigenous knowledge and cultures. The program and its offerings are unique in the U.S.

The CU Nursing Fort Lewis College Collaborative addresses a critical need – the dearth of diverse and Native American nurses. The U.S. Census notes that while about 1.6% of the population identifies as Native American, only .5% of nurses do. Similarly, the need for nurses in rural communities far outstrips the supply. In 2020, Colorado had the fourth-lowest concentration of nursing professionals by state in the country due in large measure to the lack of training facilities and teaching personnel. Our partnership is another step toward addressing the problem.

One of the great benefits of our collaboration is that it attracts enthusiastic partners who are critical to our success. Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper championed the effort through the Congressional Directed Spending process. The senators were able to secure the CDS request in the fiscal year 2023 omnibus spending package, which will help finance the program. CU Nursing alumna Karen Zink provided a generous $1 million gift for critical seed funding. All told, donor, grant and foundation funding for the program’s development totals $4.5 million to date. CU alumna Michelle Kahn-John, from the Navajo (Diné) Nation, offers considerable insight and guidance as we develop the innovative offering.

In addition to delivering the program, funds will support equipment purchases and FLC’s bridge programming – an innovative summer program to help students prepare for nursing coursework, ensuring both academic support and inspiration. Additionally, funds will support the transformation of FLC’s old Skyhawk Hall into nursing simulation labs located in the Health & Wellness Quad.

This newly designated part of campus includes the nearly complete Schlessman Family Hall, home of FLC’s health sciences, and the Centura Sports Performance Center, an upcoming renovation that will transform underutilized spaces into a cutting-edge performance, rehab and wellness center.

By collaborating on this innovative initiative, FLC and CU are addressing a critical need in our state and nation, and providing a model for how institutions can work together for the greater good. That’s what Coloradans expect from us, and that’s what we can deliver.

Tom Stritikus is president of Fort Lewis College. Todd Saliman is president of the University of Colorado.