The nursing department is Mount Saint Mary’s largest department in terms of number of graduates each year and is renowned for the skills and preparedness of its graduates entering the field. Its successes would not have been possible without generous grants, such as the one from former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and the Riordan Foundation that enabled the department to expand and elevate its training offerings. The $2 million grant to the Mount was focused on extending educational opportunities for undergraduate nursing, increasing the options for specialization in primary care, and strengthening the resiliency and durability of the nursing workforce through the Mount’s healthy health care provider pilot program and Wellness Movement.
Workforce development is one of the grantmaking priorities of The Riordan Foundation. In her 26 years as a professional grantmaker, Mary Odell ‘69, the foundation’s current chair, has encountered many Mount nurses, often in management and leadership positions, at hospitals throughout Southern California. “Hospitals love Mount nurses,” she says. “The Mount’s reputation in the medical community is stellar.”
Odell credits former Mount president Sister Magdalen Coughlin with getting Riordan involved in the Mount. “Sister Magdalen and I were talking about the Mount and Dick was interested in our conversation because at that time his focus was on early childhood education, and the Mount had an excellent education program that I went through,” says Odell. “One of the reasons the mayor is so pleased with the Mount — and I'm really proud as an alum — is that the Mount is serving diverse, first generation college students, women who otherwise may not be successful.
“Sister Magdalen understood that for the Mount to continue to accomplish its mission, it had to recruit, retain and meet the needs of a diverse student population. Now we're serving many first-generation students who mirror the rich cultural diversity of the community that we live in. Being culturally competent as a healthcare provider is so important.”
Because of the grant, the department has successfully completed the online RN to BSN program and increased the University’s capacity to serve more nursing students. The Foundation and the University worked together to successfully fulfill the grant's goals and objectives even as funds were moved from one area to another to accommodate shifting capabilities posed by COVID-19. For example, it was difficult finding clinical placements during the height of the pandemic because hospitals were overwhelmed, so funds were moved to double the number of proctors at clinical sites, which was consistent with the original intent of the grant.
Odell attributes much of the grant program’s success to Dean Leah Fitzgerald, PhD, FNP-BC, and Fletcher Jones endowed chair. “She's enormously respected in her field, and dedicated to furthering the quality of nursing. Plus she's humble and approachable,” says Odell. “She has really raised the level of competency of the nursing faculty at the Mount. People want to work for her because she's an excellent leader.”
The Riordan grant directly addresses California’s critical nursing shortage. A CalMatters article from September 2021, “Nurse shortages in California reaching crisis point,” details the depth of the nursing vacancies in the state. The San Diego area Scripps Hospital has seen a 20% increase in patients with a 96% increase in nurse vacancies. Such inequities are occurring around the country.
Nowhere were the results of this grant more visible than in the summer immersive program for selected rising seniors. The program enables students to complete internships within various hospital settings while earning a stipend. “This definitely gives our students a unique opportunity to further develop in areas that they wouldn't have opportunities to explore,” says FitzGerald, “and it also is helping meet the nursing shortages in high need clinical areas.”
The additional 500-plus hours of clinical time these students accrue during their internships also puts them four to six months ahead of typical new graduates, thus improving their candidacy for top openings. More than 95% of these students are hired into the areas where they interned.
The summer intensive program started in 2016 with four students in UCLA's operating room suite. This year, there are 23 students, five organizations and 10 specialties involved. Kassidy Fitzpatrick transferred to the Mount specifically for its opportunities and connections. “I'm so grateful to be in this immersion program because it has helped me solidify my decision about what I want to do with my career,” says Fitzpatrick, who worked in the intensive care unit at Providence St. John’s in Santa Monica. “I had a really good preceptor who guided me through my shifts and taught me everything I needed to know. This was an invaluable experience.”
There’s no question that the students who take part in the immersion program are immensely grateful for the experience. A student from the initial cohort has donated to the department every year since he graduated a few years ago. “I hope that others learn about our program and realize that it’s really something worth supporting and that is life changing for the students and the patients they serve,” says FitzGerald.
“The fact that this program has been able to spread to different health care organizations and different areas of specialties really speaks to how innovative and mutually beneficial it is,” says Lauren Fujihara, program director. “This program gives hospitals an opportunity to learn about the students’ knowledge, skills and professionalism prior to their being hired.”
FitzGerald’s dream is to enable half or more of the nursing students an opportunity to participate in the summer immersion program. “We’re forever grateful to the Riordan Foundation for seeing our potential and investing in our program,” she says.