Caleb Woolard

Caleb Woolard is working as a cardiac nurse at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville after earning his bachelor’s degree through the RIBN program at ECU. Photo by Cliff Hollis

ECU program helps boost nursing workforce

By Jules Norwood and Elizabeth Willy

In May, when Caleb Woolard received his bachelor’s degree in nursing, he already had an associate degree and a full-time job. That was by design.

Woolard was part of the first class of graduates of East Carolina University’s RIBN program, which is helping the state meet its projected need for nurses in the coming decade. It’s a partnership among the ECU College of Nursing and six eastern North Carolina community colleges that enables students to first earn an associate degree in nursing at a participating community college and then complete their bachelor’s degree in nursing online at ECU. 

Once students complete their associate degree and pass the state licensure exam at the end of their third year, they are able to begin working as nurses while they take the online coursework at ECU.

“The RIBN program is an awesome program because it allowed to not only take classes at a more affordable community college, but also take in some the university college life as well,” said Woolard, who works in the cardiac intermediate unit at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville. “Being that I went to Beaufort County Community College, I was able to live at home, which saved a lot of money.”
North Carolina’s need for more nurses is clear: The state’s elderly population is expected to double by 2020, and one in five nurses is nearing retirement age. But with those factors stressing the health care system, the need is for more than just nurses – but for more nurses educated at higher levels.  

“Research relates improved patient outcomes with nurses who have the four-year baccalaureate degree or higher,” said Sylvia Brown, dean of the ECU College of Nursing.

About half of the state’s nursing workforce has bachelor’s or graduate degrees – far short of the North Carolina Future of Nursing Action Coalition’s goal of 80 percent. The remainder have a two-year associate degree in nursing. ECU produces more new nurses with baccalaureate degrees than any other program in the state, and the RIBN, or Regionally Increasing Baccalaureate Nurses, program extends that performance.

Woolard and his four classmates all had jobs upon graduation — working in the positions they began as students. Another 105 students are enrolled in the RIBN program at various stages. 

Morgan Dawson of Winterville said the program gave her the valuable hands-on experience she needed to pursue her career of choice.
“This program allows us to work to address the nursing shortage currently going on and to begin our full-time careers a full year earlier than a strictly BSN nursing program,” said Dawson, who has worked in the cardiac intensive care unit at VMC since graduating from Pitt Community College in June 2015.

The dual-enrollment model makes a BSN more affordable and accessible by lowering costs for tuition and housing. The transition from the community college into ECU’s BSN program is seamless, as students are automatically accepted into the nursing programs at the community college and ECU when they enroll in RIBN. 

“The RIBN program allowed me to form a family with other nurses and to not only obtain two degrees in four years, but also work while obtaining my second degree – which is good because it gives you experience that helps you with your BSN courses,” Woolard said.

“Another great benefit to being enrolled at two different schools it that it allowed me to meet a bunch of people and create lasting friendships,” he added. “I would absolutely recommend the RIBN program to anyone interested in nursing.”
Participants also get the support of a student success advocate, whose role is to help RIBN students navigate any academic challenges they may face.  

By contributing nurses such as Dawson and Woolard to the workforce, ECU is a leader for the state, said Polly Johnson, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Nursing Excellence. 

“ECU is helping to lead the way in addressing critical health care challenges facing North Carolina,” she said, “and is doing so by graduating nurses who are prepared to be critical thinkers and leaders for our communities.”