By Sarah Elmquist Squires
It’s official: Central Wyoming College’s (CWC) nursing program is the best in the state.
That’s according to RegisteredNursing.org, an organization that weighs nursing programs using several metrix, including the NCLEX-RN pass rates — the percentage of students who pass the RN licensing exams. CWC blew past the competition, earning a RegisteredNursing.org score of 92.09. The organization noted CWC’s experienced nursing faculty, as well as the quality of the college’s hands-on, team-based, and active learning models.
Quality nursing programs are in high demand. It’s a great career — the mean nursing salary in Wyoming is at just over $73,000 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — and nurses are in demand in every health care setting imaginable.
“Right now, in our current state of health care, nurses are one of the most in-demand professions,” explained Dr. Kathy Wells, CWC VP for Academic Affairs, who also formerly directed CWC’s nursing program. “Once you complete your initial nursing education and you pass the licensing exam, so you’re considered an RN, which is what our program gives, that license is the initial ticket to wherever you want nursing to take you … It’s the ticket to continuing education, it’s the ticket to advanced degrees, it’s the ticket to so many different roles in nursing, pretty much anywhere you want to go.”
One of the things that really sets CWC’s program apart from the rest and contributes to student success is its team-based approach to learning. “Not only is that best practice for how adults learn, but it also mimics their role as a member of a health care team,” Wells said. “Whether in a hospital role, long-term care, or even just visiting their doctor, health care is delivered as part of a team, and nurses are very important as the core of that team. The program really emulates that.”
Each nursing student is also paired with their own nursing faculty member, who can serve as a mentor, someone to consult when things get tough. “Those meetings, check-ins, mentoring sessions I think are key in the students feeling that they have an advocate,” Wells shared. CWC Nursing Director and Professor of Nursing, Dr. Stacey Stanek, said the effect of those mentor relationships is strongly evident in the success of students by every measure. “I know from standardized test scores that CWC nursing students perform exceedingly well against students in small community colleges and major universities across the country,” Stanek explained.
While every school setting across the country was upended during the height of the Covid pandemic, it was especially disruptive to medical programs that rely on the kind of hands-on learning and experience that is central to CWC’s nursing curriculum. “CWC leadership provided expert guidance as we navigated quarantines, exposures, and sometimes severe illness,” Stanek said of the time. “Looking back, it was incredibly stressful and exhausting, but the faculty steadfastly moved forward to prepare our students to help fill the overwhelming need we have in Wyoming and elsewhere for qualified nurses. Nursing was a challenging career prior to the pandemic and it became so much harder — both physically and emotionally for bedside caregivers. Since 2020, many nurses near retirement age have left, while many younger nurses have gone on to seek new opportunities, burned out after long shifts caring for so many sick and dying patients.”
Put simply, Covid has changed the profession of nursing. “Of course, we have learned a lot about emerging infections and all of the care that entails — but we have also discovered how strong we are,” Stanek remarked. “At CWC, our job is to carry that strength forward by meeting students where they are and preparing them to join the strongest and smartest group of professionals that I know — registered nurses.”
Another thing that has exacerbated the nursing shortage across the U.S. is a lack of experienced faculty available to teach nursing students. Schools can only accept a certain number of students tied to their faculty ranks. CWC currently admits 32 students each fall into its nursing program — which includes a competitive application process — and eight students in its Jackson cohort. It’s competitive to make it onto that list, no doubt in part due to its high job placement rate: 100% of nursing students connect with a job, many of them before they even graduate. “Recruiters reach out almost daily to ask for opportunities to visit with the students or to send recruiting materials for them to consider,” explained Stanek.
Another thing that really sets CWC apart and gives students a competitive edge is the way it’s been nimble to ensure curriculum is on par with the most recent medical advancements and best practices. CWC uses a statewide nursing curriculum that was launched across all Wyoming’s community colleges and the University of Wyoming, but that curriculum requires constant refinement as health care standards and research changes. “I think CWC does an exceptional job of keeping their program current and up-to-date,” Wells explained. “All that credit goes to the nursing faculty.”
Not only do students have the chance to practice real-world medicine at CWC’s state-of-the-art simulation laboratory, they also become skilled at patient care through real world clinicals at neighboring health care facilities. From long-term care to hospital settings to public health offices, CWC students gain experience with clinicals in health care settings across Fremont, Hot Springs, and Teton counties.
“Students cannot learn everything they need to know by reading it from books or by listening to lectures,” Stanek said. “Nursing is hands-on and skilled professionals provide care for those in need. In order to be effective, nursing education must mirror that. Students learn best by doing, and nursing faculty must facilitate student learning according to best practice standards.” Students practice on high-fidelity manikins in the simulation lab that “exhibit signs and symptoms of increasingly complex health problems,” Stanek continued. “I am especially grateful for the beautiful classroom and laboratory spaces, including the state-of-the-art simulation lab, which was funded by Fremont County taxpayers. Our students learn in the best possible setting, supported by our dedicated clinical partners.”
While the #1 ranking from RegisteredNursing.org may be a relatively new title, CWC has long been a competitive school, either landing the highest licensing exam pass rate in Wyoming each year, or coming in at a close second. Nursing students are all but guaranteed to come out on top, and to graduate with the ability to choose just about anywhere they’d like to work. “You can stay local and land the job of your dreams, or you can travel to any state in the United States, and earn a very respectable wage with really, really good benefits,” Wells shared.
Want to learn more about CWC’s nursing program? Visit https://www.cwc.edu/nursing/. Learn more about how to apply, along with all CWC’s rigorous programs, at https://www.cwc.edu/admissions/.