There were many more excited voices than usual emanating from the simulation rooms on Wednesday (March 1) on the fourth floor of the Main Building in the Schoenecker Nursing Education Suite.
And two floors down in the computer science department, there was an equal amount of hubbub.
Thanks to an Innovations grant from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University to stimulate interest in higher education, 66 middle-school students from St. Cloud visited campus to expand their horizons through a minicamp. They were all from Success Academy, a charter school that serves almost entirely students of Somali heritage.
The opportunity grew from a relationship Vicky Grove, a nursing instructor, has with a Somali nurse in the family birthing unit at nearby St. Cloud Hospital. That friend put her in touch with Success Academy’s campus director, Safiyo Hassan, who welcomed an opportunity for CSB and SJU students to visit the school regularly during a two-week period and also play host to a field trip visit by the children to Saint Ben’s.
“Safiyo and I thought it would be a neat experience for the Success students to visit our college,” said Grove, who works some weekends at the hospital while teaching maternal and child health and family-centered care during the week. To broaden the experience, Grove talked to Peter Ohmann, an assistant professor of computer science, to see if he would like to partner in the event. Ohmann welcomed the opportunity.
The kids seemed to delight in performing simple tasks with the interactive mannequins in the nursing department, donning personal protective equipment, checking heart and lung activity with stethoscopes, gaining an idea of basic CPR and wound dressing. But they weren’t the only ones learning.
Sydney Gamer, a senior nursing major from Medina, Minnesota, was among the undergrads who focused their attention on a project involving a special population. She will graduate this spring, already has been hired at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, and wants to broaden her knowledge of other cultures and encourage the next generation to follow her into the field.
“I wanted to become a nurse because my aunt died of cervical cancer when I was 12,” Gamer said. “She was so scared of going to the doctor, that’s one of the reasons she died from cancer because it wasn’t detected early. I want to be an advocate for people who are hesitant about health care.”
While many of the kids she led through the nursing simulator were born in the U.S. and talked and behaved like typical American children, some of their parents have been reluctant to embrace western medicine. This leads to some of the lowest rates for cancer screening and optical care of any group – and the highest rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
“When you’re in a medical setting and everyone is white and you’re the only brown person, it’s understandable when people aren’t comfortable,” Gamer said. “You feel safest when you see other people who look like you. That’s one reason why we hope some of these kids might be interested in what we have to show them.”
Great opportunity for RNs, and need for Somalis in Central Minnesota healthcare
The current shortage of RNs is expected to become acute in the next 10 years in Minnesota. This year, the state’s nursing programs are expected to graduate about 4,000 RNs – slightly more than half of the workforce needed to fill open positions. By 2030, the output of RNs may grow to 4,500 per year while the need skyrockets to more than 27,000. And, as the state becomes more diverse, minority populations are less represented.
According to Minnesota Compass, a project of the Wilder Research Foundation, the Somali population as recent as 2020 in the state was 82,890 people. A 2022 report from Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota found 6,865 of those lived in St. Cloud. That means more than 10 percent of the St. Cloud population has become Somali. Yet a 2019 report from the Minnesota Department of Health indicated only 2.3% of the state’s advanced practice registered nurse workforce identified as Black, and 0.2% were able to speak Somali. Further, the 13-county area that encompasses Central Minnesota faced the greatest shortage of APRNs compared to population of anywhere in the state.
“Representation is critical to get people into the field,” said Lauren Meurer, a senior nursing major from Rochester, who experienced a reversal of demographics last year when she served an internship for the Mayo Clinic in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where her mother also is working on a two-year contract as a nurse. “That’s why it’s been nice to get to know not only these kids but some of their family members. The other day, they were asked in class what they want to be when they grow up. A few said they want to be a doctor or a nurse, but some didn’t understand why you’d become a nurse if you can be a doctor, and most of them don’t have any concept of all the other things you can be in the medical field.”
Talon Lenzen, a senior nursing major from St. Cloud, also was in the classroom when the children were asked about careers.
“When we talked about nurses, a bunch of girls hands shot up,” Lenzen said. “There were only a couple of boys, and they only probably did so because they had a mom or sister who was a nurse. It’s important for these kids to see what we do, but it’s also important for us to be immersed in a different culture, too. I’m thankful for classes I’ve been able to take in Islam and gender studies, and I’ve learned a lot through this experience, too.”
Tech sector needs computer scientists in similar fashion
The students from Success Academy were perhaps even more adept at some of the activities they found in the computer science labs. One was instructive in robotics, where the kids used iPads to control small vehicles. Tyler Pohlmann and Mia Sabin, both computer science majors, didn’t have to do a whole lot of instructing before the toy robot cards were crawling all around the room.
“They’re really energetic,” said Pohlmann, a sophomore from Melrose, Minnesota, who is considering a career in computer architecture or software development. “I grew up on a dairy farm and I was always interested in computers and even built some when I was in high school. But I didn’t know anything about robots until I came here. These kids seem very comfortable with what we’re trying to show them.”
The outlook for technology jobs, or the dearth of candidates to fill them, isn’t much different in computer science from nursing. Currently, there are 2.5 jobs for every job seeker in Minnesota’s tech sector. More than 26,000 positions are posted every month and that number is expected to grow by 5% in the next five years. Further, only about 2% of tech sector employees are Black. Those numbers are despite a median salary of more than $90,000.
“I’m sure a lot of these kids have iPads at home, but they picked up on the control concepts superfast,” said Sabin, a senior from Anoka, Minnesota. “When I was in high school, I wanted to choose a career with a good income, but I had no idea what I would do in computer science until I came here. I had an internship last summer with the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis in product management. It was a great experience and so I think I’ll be doing something like that. Hopefully, these kids can see the potential in a college education and maybe they’ll have the same opportunity in computer science.”
In addition to the two departments, students also visited Clemens Library, the Multicultural Center and Claire Lynch Hall during their campus visit.
“We want these kids to know that college is an option and, whether they’re interested in medicine or computer science or something else, we have a great avenue for them to pursue it right here,” Grove said.
Mia Sabin, a senior from Anoka, Minnesota, and Tyler Pohlmann, a sophomore from Melrose, Minnesota, are two computer science majors who showed a group of middle schoolers from Success Academy in St. Cloud some of what they do in a lab. The kids controlled small robots via iPads, among other participatory events in the computer science department. It was a collaboration with the nursing department to potentially interest children in the pursuit of higher education in fields that are in need of future graduates.