Program bringing rural nurse training to B.C.’s rural north

Tom Summer, Local Journalism Initiative ALASKA HIGHWAY NEWS

Fort St. John’s new nursing program has drawn local and international interest as the first group of students settle into their studies this fall.

Thirteen students comprise the first class to enter the new Northern Baccalaureate Nursing Program through the University of Northern British Columbia. First announced in 2019, the program is housed at the Northern Lights College campus, with students slated to graduate in 2023.

“I wanted to do this ever since I was a little kid,” said student and Fort St. John local Heather McAleney. “I would much rather go home and watch doctor shows than cartoons, and instead of reading bed time stories, I would do flash cards. I can’t imagine picking a better career.”

The program has also attracted candidates from abroad, including student Jacob Williams, who moved from the warm shores of Florida to the colder climes of northern B.C. to take part in the program.

“I looked at every nursing program in Canada, and this was the only that you’re able to do in two years if you’re not already an RN, and is also open to international students,” said Williams. “Every other nursing program doesn’t offer that.”

The province says the new program addresses recommendations made by the Auditor General to make nursing education more accessible for people living in the northeast, and to improve access to health care in the region by training nurses locally.

Assistant Professor Dr. Raelene Marceau is the program lead, and brings more than 30 years of nursing experience to the program. Marceau is excited to see locally trained nurses for the region.

“The whole intent of the program is to focus on rural healthcare, expose these students to life in the north, and give them a very different experience than you would get at nursing schools in Edmonton or Vancouver,” said Marceau. “We want to attract students, and be a liaison with Northern Health to have these people return and go into the work pool. There’s a huge demand right now.”

The two-year program runs in five consecutive semesters, featuring both face-to-face classroom instruction and online components. The immersive program will see students out in the community gaining experience with the local hospital and running simulations using a state of the art nursing lab.

“They’re doing a very condensed, very intense program. There’s a lot of content to fit in five semesters,” said Marceau. “Their last semester is really a very intense clinical, so they’re not in the classroom at that point, but around the region doing their practicum.”

Marceau added the push for nurses is more important than ever, with the COVID-19 pandemic putting a strain on the healthcare system.

“COVID has really caused a global nursing crisis,” Marceau said. “There was a lot of compassion fatigue before COVID, and so we’re losing a lot nurses due to COVID. It’s really important that we have this program, so we can keep people in the north.”

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