Celebrating 50 Years of Nursing Excellence

Celebrating 50 Years of Nursing Excellence

Shenandoah University’s nursing programs enjoy a reputation for nursing excellence acknowledged by peer institutions and nationally ranked health systems. However, back in 1962, the university’s nursing program was in its infancy.

In James R. Wilkins, Sr.’s history of Shenandoah, “The Impossible Task,” he described how the university’s (then Shenandoah College and Shenandoah Conservatory of Music) board of trustees chose to organize an Allied Health Department in cooperation with the Winchester Memorial Hospital. After much discussion and weighing of pros and cons, the shortage of nurses and technicians to staff three shifts at the hospital eventually swayed the hospital board to create an affiliate program with the college. The hospital’s program graduated approximately five nurses a year, yet many more were needed to staff its growing workforce. The agreed-upon plan transferred the hospital’s nursing program to Shenandoah. Classes were held in Racey and Cooley Halls on main campus, with the hospital providing locations for clinical experiences and on-the job training several days each week. Students who graduated from the program earned an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) degree, and the hospital offered full scholarships to those candidates who signed contracts to work for two-and-a-half years after completing the program and passing their state boards.

As a result, Shenandoah became one of only four institutions in Virginia with a nursing program. It was so well designed, other hospitals and institutions began offering scholarships to Shenandoah students, if they would commit to work for their organizations after completing their degrees. Shenandoah’s first nursing class of four students graduated on May 28, 1964, then completed a six-week internship at the Winchester Memorial Hospital. By 1965, the program graduated 13 students and continued to grow. In 1967, the Virginia State Board of Nursing and the National League for Nursing (NLN) fully accredited the program.

New Facilities; New Programs Emerge

As the years progressed, Shenandoah developed new facilities to house its growing nursing program. During the years between 1975 and 1999, the nursing program moved from Racey and Cooley Halls on the main campus to the John Kerr Building (formerly the John Kerr Elementary School) in downtown Winchester (now home to the Shenandoah Conservatory Arts Academy).

In 1990, Shenandoah and Lord Fairfax Community College entered into a joint Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) to Associate of Science (ASN) degree program. The following year, George Mason University and Shenandoah signed a cooperative contract for the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program, setting the stage for future cooperative partnerships with other colleges and universities. Ongoing collaboration with the Winchester Medical Center provided students with opportunities for part-time employment as well as valuable hands-on training. Shenandoah pursued NLN accreditation for a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree and established an advisory committee to plan for a master’s program. By 1995, combined student enrollment reached 250 for the ASN and BSN programs. The following year, the program moved out of the John Kerr Building and into the newly constructed Health Professions Building on the campus of the Winchester Medical Center.

Soon, new faculty members with advanced-care specialties joined the program and a Center for Parish Nursing was added along with new offerings in family nurse practitioner, nurse-midwifery, adult nursing, pharmacology, psychiatric mental health and care management (later renamed health systems management). These specialties set the tone for a cutting-edge academic future.

Endings and New Beginnings

In the year 2000, preparations for Y2K were ongoing, but by 2001, the 9/11 disaster changed American thinking. As a result, Shenandoah offered several courses to train nurses in disaster relief as well as emerging areas of health care. The Virginia State Board approved the BSN program, and the Honor Society of Nursing began its annual Research Day. The society also met the requirements to apply for a chapter of Sigma Theta Tau, the international nursing honor society.

Time brought endings as well as beginnings. From 1960 to 2001, more than 1,000 nurses had graduated from the two year ASN program and were practicing in clinical settings throughout the region and around the world. As the faculty looked to the future of nursing education, a decision was made to discontinue the two-year program, since healthcare providers nationwide were predicting the four-year BSN would become the preferred entry-level program for future generations of practicing nurses.

The Gladys T. Quarles Learning Laboratory for Nursing opened in 2001 in the Health Professions Building, providing students with state-of-the-art, digitally controlled simulation mannequin technology. This unique lab allowed students to work collaboratively with professors and one another to practice procedures and make clinical decisions within a safe environment.

Celebrating Partnerships; Moving Forward

In addition to simulation laboratories in Winchester and at Shenandoah’s Northern Virginia Campus in Ashburn, Va., undergraduate nursing students today hone their skills in real-world practice under the tutelage of experienced clinical preceptors at such prestigious regional systems as Valley Health, Inova Health System and the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, as well as at 250 affiliated clinical placement locations in urban and rural settings, hospitals and small offices in communities throughout Northern Virginia and the surrounding region.

In October, Shenandoah officially announced a new name for the nursing program: the Eleanor Wade Custer School of Nursing. Director Kathryn Ganske, Ph.D., RN, was tapped to serve as dean of the school. Also, Shenandoah received its first-ever National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, allowing university and Virginia Department of Health (VDH) researchers to address the issue of infant mortality in the City of Winchester as well as in Frederick and Page counties.

“Shenandoah University’s nursing programs are, and have always been, based on the strongest qualities of integrity, caring, curiosity and intelligence,” said Dr. Ganske. “Nurses have long played a vital part of medical care. Once they were seen as little more than assistants and helpers, handing the doctor a tool in the operating room or administering prescribed drugs. Today, nurses serve as important members of the health-care team, enjoying collaborative partnerships with physicians, communicating vital information about patients, providing input into treatment plans and making independent decisions about the patients in their care.”

Now with 50 years of history, Shenandoah University’s Eleanor Wade Custer School of Nursing is poised for the future. Graduates can find employment in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, occupational health, public schools, private practices, clinics or hospice care. The many programs offered at the bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral levels emphasize holistic health, wellness, leadership, ethics, care management and disaster preparedness. Shenandoah is also actively training the next generation of highly skilled and much-needed nurse educators. 

“The level of academic preparation for nurses is due to the more rigorous training standards necessary for today’s professional practice,” said Ganske. Not only is there a need for individuals with their bachelor’s degrees, but also advanced practice credentials, including the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), post-master’s certificates and the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).”