Breaking Down Barriers: Best Practices for Student Retention

By Jill Sand, MEd, RRT, Dean of Health Sciences, Southeast Community College

Jill Sand, MEd, RRT, Dean of Health Sciences, Southeast Community College

As program directors and instructors, we know the many challenges of running a surgical technology program. What we don’t always know is what our students might be going through outside the classroom. This requires educators and student support systems to use a variety of tools to meet the needs of students.

At Southeast Community College (SCC), we implemented a variety of student success best practices. Our end goal is to retain students in the program by providing a sense of belonging and developing future workplace skills to support the knowledge and skills they are gaining.

Establishing Best Practices for Student Success

One successful best practice was to initiate a required program orientation for new students, which occurs one month prior to the start of the program. Students bring a support person (family member or friend) with them, with the intent of sharing what their journey will be like and how they may need support while in the program. Having students’ families or friends present on one of their first days at SCC helps create more personal bonds with the individuals they bring to the orientation.

Sharon Rehn, CST, RN, BS, MA, Program Chair for Surgical Technology, Southeast Community College

Sharon Rehn, SCC surgical technology program director (pictured left), strongly believes support is a must for her students. “We find that if we start building relationships early and on a more personal level, our students are more inclined to come to us when difficult or unexpected events occur,” she says. “It’s important that our students understand from the start that our doors are open when they need assistance.”

As for the college, there are many student success resources available, and it is important to make sure students are aware of each one. SCC resources include Student Success Coaches, free printing, a food bank, computer resources and grant opportunities to support their education goals. 

In addition, SCC’s Counseling Assistance Program for Students (CAPS) program has proven a valuable resource. CAPS provides free counseling to support the mental health concerns that students face and offers best practices to support them toward success. The program is a great avenue of support for students to develop lifelong skills in managing their mental health and cope with difficult life situations. Students are given 15 sessions that come as part of their program fees.

Getting Smart With Financial Aid

Many of our students utilize federal financial aid like loans, Pell grants and Project HELP (Health Education Laddering Program). Project HELP is a Nebraska-based, five-year, grant-funded project through the Department of Health and Human Services. It is an opportunity specific to low-income health sciences students. The grant supports students in 11 of the 16 health sciences programs at SCC.

Project HELP offers individual support, tutoring, referrals, college success/career coaching, scholarships and more. Their services to students include:

  • Required regular advising
  • Purchase of required materials and supplies (scrubs, tools, stethoscopes, etc.)
  • Laptop checkout
  • Employment assistance (resume workshop, interview preparation)
  • Tuition assistance
  • Financial transportation assistance (gas cards)

The HELP Grant not only aids students, but also provides funding to hire adjunct lab instructors at our distant clinical/lab sites. Geographically, Nebraska provides a challenging barrier to the rural student wanting a career in healthcare, such as surgical technology. With only three surgical technology programs in Nebraska located in the corners of the state, access is a major issue for students. We have found a solution to the problem by offering surgical technology and other health sciences programs online to those students who are place-bound individuals.

Project HELP has become an excellent best practice. The grant has assisted more than 2,000 people in working toward their dreams and investing in their futures. Just a few results include: 

  • 91% of participants complete their education/training
  • 69% are employed in a new healthcare career
  • The average pay increase after completion is $4.21/hour and most receive full benefits
  • In 2018-2019, $94,259 worth of support services were provided

For 20 years, we have been able to expand the surgical technology profession to rural students by using technology and local skilled graduates to bring surgical technology education to the smaller communities who deserve the same quality of care urban areas have. We have seen a drastic change in the success of our online students with this addition of lab instructors within their own community.

Student retention can be a delicate balance. While there are factors outside a program’s control, as program directors and educators, we can focus on thoughtful, innovative solutions that are within our power. When we start by thinking from the perspective of the student, and the challenges they may face, we take a step in the right direction.


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