Students had their heads buried in books at the Rainy River Community College nursing lab Monday, preparing for an upcoming test later that day.

One student quickly asked Donita Ettestad, RRCC nursing faculty member and Koochiching County health care coordinator, a quick question during the group’s study session.

Guiding the future nurse to the answer, Ettestad did so with a smile on her face.

“They’re so eager to learn,” she said of 10 students enrolled in the licensed nurse practitioner, or LPN, class. “It’s so exciting.”

Entering into her fourth year as the college’s nursing instructor, Ettestad is proud of how far the program has come.

“We are full in both classes,” she said of the LPN and registered nursing, or RN, courses. “That is a first.”

Through partnerships with Itasca Community College for the LPN program, and Hibbing Community College for the RN courses, Koochiching County students looking for a career in health care are able to start their journey right at home, while others from outside the area are traveling to attend school that offers a nursing program.

“It took (four years) to build it up and recruit, but it’s exciting to see where we are today,” Ettestad said of the program.

Grassroots

It’s been more than four years since former RRCC Provost Carol Helland approached elected officials with concerns about the need to fill more than two dozen open health care positions in the county.

Community members sprang into action to form a health care initiative and secure financial support for the college’s nursing program.

Now, both programs have the maximum of 10 students, a number set to balance the student-to-instructor ratio, Ettestad said.

“This is a huge opportunity,” she said. “Students are finding they can get this kind of education right here at Rainy River Community College.”

Still a need

While local health care facilities are hiring what RRCC’s nursing program is producing, there is still a need.

“Because of retirement, (employers) still have need,” Ettestad said. “Keeping in mind... some of the students want to go out of town (after graduation).”

The open positions are across the board, and many students are already in the workforce.

“When I think about the RN students, most of them are working as LNPs while they’re in school,” Ettestad said. “They do that as they go through.”

There’s a range of students, too.

Some are fresh out of high school, others are non-traditional students seeking a new career path. Two students in the LPN class already have four-year bachelor degrees, Ettestad said.

“People are so passionate and are liking this program,” she said.

In addition to the LPN and RN courses, a certified nursing assistant, or CNA, class is offered in the spring. The class is taught by Laura Zika.

“CNA positions are the hardest to fill,” Ettestad said. “We definitely need more CNAs in Koochiching County.”

Community support

Looking into the future of the program, Ettestad stressed the importance of community support.

“This program’s future is vital to continued support from our partners,” she said. “Students and employers are appreciative of it, and we’re seeing good results.”

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