Wallace State graduates first students in UAB/WSCC Joint Enrollment program

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Army veteran Michael Elston salutes the American Flag during the singing of the National Anthem at the pinning ceremony for the August 2021 graduating class from the Wallace State Community College Nursing program. Elston is among the first students graduating from the UAB/WSCC Nursing Joint Enrollment program, earning both an associate degree and bachelor’s degree. (Photo courtesy of WSCC)  

HANCEVILLE, Ala. — The first cohort of students enrolled in the UAB/WSCC Nursing Joint Enrollment Partnership have completed the program and have earned both an associate degree from Wallace State Community College and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  

“We are thrilled to graduate our first group of students who concurrently earned associate and bachelor degrees from Wallace State and UAB,” said Deborah “Pepper” Hoover, chair of the Wallace State Department of Nursing Education.  

“Part of the reasoning behind offering the joint enrollment option was to offer students an accelerated pathway to a bachelor’s degree and provide the health care industry with qualified and well-trained nurses at a quicker pace,” Hoover said. “Today, more than ever, the medical field needs nurses who can enter the workforce ready to treat and care for patients. With a limited number of seats in bachelor’s degree programs, this option provides a gateway for more students to enter the field and offer a much-needed boost to a system that’s been hit hard over the last year and a half.” 

Two of the students completing the program are Michael Elston of West Point and Greer Cunningham of Birmingham. Elston is an Army veteran who served as a paratrooper and medic before retiring in 2013. Cunningham previously earned a degree in Nutritional Science before turning to Nursing.  

As an Army child who grew up playing war in the woods of North Carolina, Elston said enlisting in the military was a natural progression.  

“Growing up with my dad in Special Forces, I had every intention of going into the infantry myself,” he said. But with experience as a lifeguard and EMT and after taking tests during the enlistment process, he was encouraged to consider the medic program. He agreed and received airborne training as well and medical training.  

After he retired from the Army in 2013, Elston and his wife moved to Cullman County to be closer to his mother and stepfather. He began working in the emergency room at an area hospital, but realized he needed more of a challenge. 

“The scope of practices that I was allowed as an ER tech was not even close to what I was used to for an Army medic,” Elston said. After some thought, he decided becoming a registered nurse was the best option.  

The UAB/WSCC Nursing Joint Enrollment Partnership wasn’t an option when Elston first applied to the college and the traditional nursing program, but it became available just as he was about to enter the traditional program. He was able to defer enrollment one semester and complete remaining prerequisites for the program. In spring 2020, he joined the first cohort of students for the joint enrollment program.  

Elston found that training to be a nurse was quite different from training as a medic in the Army.  

“Because as a medic, I stabilize a patient and I ship them out,” he said. “I call the helicopter and they’re going to the next level of care. I have to stabilize and stop the bleed at that moment. They teach me how to do a lot of ways to do that, they don’t teach me the why, where in the nursing program, they’re teaching you a lot of the why.  

“A nurse manages a patient for a lot longer period of time and they’ve got to be able to see the difference in this read out and this blood pressure and this lab test, and they have so much that they have to process all the time, continuously, in order to give the best possible care for that client,” he added. “It has just made me really appreciate nurses, those that are in nursing and my instructors. It has really given me a lot of information that I didn’t know.” 

As for the future, Elston hopes to focus his work in emergency medicine. 

“I personally like the emergency department, that’s where my heart lies, emergency or cardiac,” he said. “Emergency is something I’ve always like, but then again, I was a combat medic, trauma is something I feel that I am good at, I can help patients and I enjoy it.” 

Cunningham isn’t quite as sure where she may want to specialize, but said she really enjoyed her clinical rotation in wound care and was looking forward to shadowing in surgery. 

As the mother of an active toddler and starting nursing school right before the pandemic hit, Cunningham said “it’s been a wild ride.” 

“I’ve definitely had my moments of I don’t know if I can do this, but I have an amazing support system,” she said. “My family and close friends have been with me every step of the way.” 

Cunningham said an adviser at UAB suggested she apply to the joint enrollment program with Wallace State.  

“I did actually apply to the UAB program, but I spoke with an adviser, and she said with your family situation you’re thinking you’re going to have to work while you’re in school, this could be a really good option for you,” Cunningham added. 

“I didn’t get in to the UAB program, but it actually ended up being a blessing because it was like this is what you’re going to do and I’m still going to get my degree in nursing. I’m still get my bachelor’s degree and I have really approached being at Wallace State and in the nursing program. It’s definitely been the right fit, for sure.” 

Cunningham proved successful in the program, earning all A’s in her nursing classes through each of her semesters at Wallace State and UAB.  

“I did not do as well with my first degree,” she admitted. “I wasn’t mature enough. My goal was to finish with all A’s, or with an A average, because I can do this. I have set high expectations for myself.” 

Cunningham said she appreciates that she and her classmates will be part of history at Wallace State, becoming the first to graduate from the joint enrollment program. 

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “I think it’s an amazing program, especially for people like me who have worked on their second degrees. Without a doubt, I encourage one to enroll in the joint enrollment program if you are able to.” 

The UAB/WSCC Nursing Joint Enrollment Partnership program accepts applications twice a year for entry each fall and spring. The next round of applications will be accepted July 1 – Sept. 1 for spring 2022 entry. A Nursing Information Session will be held Monday, Aug. 23 at 2 p.m. in the School of Nursing and Center for Science. Participants can pre-register from a link at www.wallacestate.edu/nursing, but it’s not required. 

The UAB/WSCC Nursing Joint Enrollment program takes nine semesters to complete, with the first four semesters comprising of prerequisites to be taken before applying to the program and the last five comprised of nursing classes through Wallace State and UAB. The traditional Associate Degree Nursing program takes five semesters to complete, with the option to earn a practical nursing certificate after the third semester.  

The Wallace State Department of Nursing Education has twice been designated as a Center of Excellence in Nursing Education by the National League for Nursing. For more information, visit www.wallacestate.edu/nursing or contact the Department of Nursing Education at 256-352-8199 or nursingapplicant@wallacestate.edu.  

Greer Cunningham smiles as she is pinned during the pinning ceremony for the August 2021 graduating class from the Wallace State Community College Nursing program. Cunningham is among the first students graduating from the UAB/WSCC Nursing Joint Enrollment program, earning both an associate degree and bachelor’s degree. (Photo courtesy of WSCC)