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San Juan College's nursing director touts 100% pass rate on licensure exams

Shawna Kemper says new graduates are badly needed

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • All 47 San Juan College nursing students who took the exam in 2020 passed it.
  • Kemper said that kind of success is not unusual, as the school typically has a pass rate in the high 90s.
  • Graduates cannot begin practicing as nurses until they have passed the exam.
Shawna Kemper

FARMINGTON — When an entire year's worth of students in the nursing program at San Juan College pass their national licensure exams on their first try, as they did in 2020, it's not a milestone the college has never achieved before.

In fact, according to program director Shawna Kemper, it happens more often than not.

"We maintain really high pass rates, usually 97 or 96%," she said. "This was not necessarily unusual."

But the news was greeted warmly by college officials all the same, considering the negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on San Juan County and the fact that local health-care facilities are being severely tested by the spread of the virus.

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"We need as many hands on deck as we can possibly have," Kemper said, summarizing the situation.

Graduates cannot begin practicing as nurses until they have passed the exam.

The group that passed its licensure exams in 2020 included 32 graduates of the college's associate degree in nursing program and another 15 graduates of the bachelor's degree nursing program, which the college operates as a partnership with the University of New Mexico.

"I think it's a wonderful thing for our community," Kemper said. "We know there are a lot of health-care facilities in need."

When the pandemic began last spring, Kemper acknowledged she was a bit worried the college would see its exam pass rate suffer. That was because it wasn't clear at that point that the college's nursing students would be able to complete their in-person clinical requirements at a health-care facility that are an integral part of their training.

San Juan College nursing students practice CPR techniques in a file photo dated May 26, 2011.

"That face-to-face, person-to-person interaction is very important to becoming a nurse," Kemper said.

Preparations were being made for nursing students to complete their clinicals in a virtual setting, but Kemper knew that was hardly an ideal solution, especially for students who were preparing to graduate in May. So she said program officials worked closely with their partners at the San Juan Regional Medical Center to develop a plan under which San Juan College students could safely complete their clinicals at the hospital and meet their requirements for a degree.

"We know emotions were really high during that time," Kemper said, describing the fear many of her students were feeling about working in a setting where COVID-19 was prevalent. "So we kept open that option of virtual learning. But I would say a good 90% (of students in the program) wanted to continue at the hospital. In large part, they wanted to get out there and felt a strong need to help our community."

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Kemper said a few modifications were made to the clinicals program in March to ensure the safety of students. She noted that the determination of hospital and college officials to keep that in-person learning experience open was not something that was repeated in some other locations.

"That was really unique to our community," she said. "A lot of other clinical settings were not allowing students to be present. They were doing those clinicals online."

Ultimately, the fact that most San Juan College nursing students were able to complete their clinicals in person contributed to the 100% pass rate, Kemper believes.

"The fact that we came out of this with a really high pass rate is phenomenal," she said. "I couldn't be more happy with these results right now."

As the pandemic lingers, Kemper said fear continues to play a role in the decision-making of some students, who may be questioning whether they want to put themselves in a position where they face so much exposure to the virus.

"This is a profession that's always going to be needed, but those fears are out there," she said. "Some of our students who have just graduated have said, 'This is not what I signed up for.' But most of these students, I've been able to talk them through it."

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Kemper said she points out to her students there are several career paths open to those with a nursing degree, including an increasing number of opportunities in the telehealth field where person-to-person contact is not required.

"There are many other ways nurses can be involved in health care," she said. " … As nurses, one of our best skills is learning to be adaptable and flexible."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.