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Norfolk nursing campus fills a growing need

NORFOLK, Neb. — A new bachelor’s degree nursing program offered here has given Kari Uhlir a new chance to pursue a postponed dream.

After she graduated from Battle Creek High in 1992, Uhlir — then Kari Schmode — headed off to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to pursue a health care career. She declared a pre-med major and worked part time as a certified nurse’s aide at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.

But life took her on a different path — one that led to a move back home to northeast Nebraska and to marriage and motherhood.

Uhlir is now pursuing a nursing degree from the Northern Division of the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing.

On May 3, the first class of 26 students will graduate from the Norfolk program, helping to address a looming shortage of nurses in Nebraska.

After their first child was born, Uhlir and her husband, Todd, moved to Norfolk. He took over as manager of a family-owned Burger King restaurant in town.

Uhlir enrolled at a nursing college in Sioux City, Iowa, about 75 miles away. She withdrew before starting classes because the drive would take too much time away from her infant daughter.


Three more children came along as the years passed. Always, the thought hovered about nursing school. Always, the dream seemed just beyond her reach.

Uhlir, now 38, said she could hardly believe it when community leaders started talking several years ago about raising funds to enable UNMC to establish a College of Nursing campus in Norfolk.

It wasn’t that she doubted her community could make it happen — she’s seen how people in the counties surrounding Norfolk can pull together.

“It was just the thought ‘Can I actually do what I want to do?’ “ she said. “Something clicked inside me.”

Eventually more than 350 private donors contributed nearly $12 million — the full cost of the new building, which is on the Northeast Community College campus and is shared by the community college’s associate degree nursing program.

The building is named in honor of J. Paul and Eleanor McIntosh, who donated an undisclosed amount in excess of $1 million toward its cost.

Guests to be invited to the May graduation ceremony will include the hundreds of people who contributed to the cause, said Liane Connelly, assistant dean in charge of the program.

The med center spends less than $1 million a year on salaries for 13 faculty and five staff and for shared maintenance costs.

The Norfolk-based school is part of the med center’s strategy to address a looming shortage of nurses in Nebraska.

Even though the number of nurses graduating from 16 nursing education programs in the state of Nebraska increased significantly in the past decade, health care experts say the increase is not enough to keep up with future demands.

Rural areas already face nursing shortages. The Center for Nursing reports that as of 2008, 28 low-population counties had fewer than half the nurses they needed.

When it opened in 2010, the Northern Division became the med center’s fifth nursing campus. Others are in Scottsbluff, Kearney, Lincoln and Omaha.

By locating nurse education programs across the state, the medical center hopes to encourage new nurses to live and work in their home communities.

(University of Nebraska officials earlier this year asked the Legislature to approve funds to build new nurse education facilities in Lincoln and Kearney. The Legislature approved spending $15 million to expand the Kearney campus but did not allocate money toward the Lincoln expansion.)

The nursing campus strategy is working, according to several students interviewed at the Norfolk site.

Ashley Pokorny of Howells, Neb., who became interested in nursing after her father lost his hand in a farm accident when she was 4 years old, said she hopes to get a job at a clinic in the area. She lived in Lincoln while completing her general education requirements at Southeast Community College.

Pokorny, left, and Peterson

“City life is nice, but I like Howells,” said Pokorny, who will graduate in May. “I don’t like stoplights.”

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posted in: Nebraska
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