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EDINBURG, RGV – Doctors Hospital at Renaissance hosted the Inaugural Dual Enrollment Nursing Program Celebration on Thursday, honoring eight high school seniors that were the first in the nation to graduate with an Associates Nursing Degree.

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD’s Nursing Career Pathway Program was the first in the country to provide a free, college-level, associate degree to qualified high school students. The Texas Board of Nursing first approved the pilot program on July 23, 2015, beginning the partnership between South Texas College, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD (PSJA), the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance (DHR) and Region One Education Service Center to address the shortage of nurses in the industry.

During the ceremony, Armour Forse, chief academic officer at DHR, said that the celebration highlighted the student’s success and the significance of finding a rewarding solution.

“Today we celebrate the graduation of these nurses, from the first pilot dual registration program not only in Texas, but in the nation,” Forse said. “Today we celebrate the innovation and the creativity of the Rio Grande Valley. Here we have thousands of students and thousands of healthcare jobs. This pilot program helped us connect those together.”

Shirley Reed, president of South Texas College (STC), said during the celebration how important it was to create a new educational opportunity for students who want to pursue an associates nursing degree in high school while solving the nursing shortage.

“This is how we’re going to achieve the cultural diversity we need in the nursing profession,” Reed said. “This is how we’re going to respond for the shortage of nurses that we haven’t been able to solve yet. Its on the shoulders of all of you to be our ambassadors to do great, great work, to be the models and convince the rest of the country that this is the next wave for the education of nurses.”

The U.S. is expected to have a nursing shortage when the Baby Boomer generation retires. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, projections show the total number of job openings for nurses will reach 1.05 million by 2022.

PSJA ISD Superintendent of Schools, Daniel King, said the program could solve the problem by preparing students at a younger age and granting them the opportunity to pursue post-graduate studies.

“One of the solutions is the young people themselves because they’re getting their associates degree so young,” King said. “So the shortage of faculty we can solve it by producing young nurses that have not yet taken on family responsibilities and all of life challenges and are much more likely to get through post-graduate work and can turn around to be the instructors.”

The program began with 20 students that met STC’s school of nursing standards, that were in the top ten of their class, and passed the Health Education Systems Incorporated (HESI) entrance exam. For the next two years, the students worked tirelessly to be a success in the new nursing program, eight achieving their ultimate goal.

Guadalupe Salinas, graduate from PSJA Memorial, said her motivation was to be one of the first in the country to graduate with a nursing degree.

“Who else gets their associates degree in nursing in high school?” Salinas said. “We were the first in the nation and we knew it was going to be an experiment, we were the guinea pigs, but I knew that we would be successful.”

PSJA’s Nursing Career Pathway Program awaits approval by the Texas Board of Nurses to continue the program in the district. Other school districts across Texas and the country are beginning to model similar programs.

The Mayor of Pharr, Ambrosio Hernandez, also attended the celebration at DHR, championed the success of the program and how it shines a spotlight of the Valley.

“This above all shows the entire world that we in the Rio Grande Valley have great talent, we have great partnerships, and above all we have great students,” Mayor Hernandez said.