Nurse Scholars Program Celebrates First Graduates

ASPIRE expands career horizons, builds caregiver pipeline

ASPIRE Nurse Scholars

When new graduates of the Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) nursing program receive their pins and diplomas later this month, two of them will share this distinction: They will be the first members of a Cleveland Clinic nursing enrichment program to earn their degrees.

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Schenley Blase and Nina Tomaselli are about to earn their Associate of Applied Science in Nursing degrees through Tri-C. They were early participants of the ASPIRE Nurse Scholars program, which began in 2017 at Cleveland Clinic’s Stanley Shalom Zielony Institute for Nursing Excellence and welcomes a new cohort of high school students annually to learn about potential careers in nursing.

Sponsored by Cleveland Clinic and the Howley Foundation, the program provides opportunities to vulnerable students from racial, economic and ethnic minority groups to pursue their career aspirations. For those who participate, it helps clear the path to success. It also helps build a new generation of diverse and expertly trained nurses at Cleveland Clinic.

“Through this program, I have learned so much about the medical field,” says Tomaselli. “The people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had have helped me grow, from my (PRN) job to meeting nursing specialists who came to speak with us, to practicing in the simulation lab, as well as Miss Daria always being ready to mentor me.”

Support with staying power

“Miss Daria” is Program Coordinator Daria Sheafe, MSN, RN, who provides ASPIRE scholars support from the moment they enter the program through graduation from nursing school.  (The scholars also benefit from the ASPIRE Mentor Program, which consists of RNs from across Northeast Ohio, who volunteer their time to mentor ASPIRE scholars throughout their academic journey.)

Sheafe and Tomaselli have a running joke about how much Tomaselli availed herself of that support with questions after hours to Sheafe and Sol Sanchez, BSN, RN, Nursing Professional Development Specialist, who is responsible for the ASPIRE curriculum.

“We tell our students they can call at night, but to make sure it’s an emergency if they do,” Sheafe says. “Nina forgets what normal business hours entail. She would call and say, ‘Can you talk right now?’ And I’d say, ‘No, Nina, it’s 10 o’clock at night.’ But the next thing you know, I’m saying ‘OK, what is it?’”

That dedication from program leaders plays a major role in helping students succeed, says Blase. Scholars continue to receive support in college from the ASPIRE team, including monthly touch points and participation in the ASPIRE Nurse Mentor Program.

“I probably wouldn’t have been able to go to college without that support,” Blase says. “The financial help was an awesome opportunity, but we also just had constant support.” 

Sometimes the support was simple reassurance. “The second semester of nursing school there is a really hard class that definitely weeded people out, but the ASPIRE team offered us resources, including tutoring,” Blase adds.

Junior year: a first look at nursing

Blase and Tomaselli attended high school at Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School in Cleveland and met Sheafe during a program recruitment visit. Both already were interested in nursing, although neither had a broad understanding of the options available until they joined ASPIRE.

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Recruitment efforts target high performing, high school juniors in Northeast Ohio who come from racial or ethnic groups underrepresented in nursing, demonstrate economic need, and/or the first generation in their family to graduate from a four-year accredited college or university.

After a competitive, holistic selection process, the junior-year experience begins. It takes place every Saturday for 12 weeks and incorporates curriculum that includes nursing concepts such as relationship-based care and evidence-based practice, as well as Nursing Specialty Day. Scholars also receive CPR training, and learn about diversity and inclusion in health care.

“We want them to still be able to have something to take away even if they decide nursing is not for them, so we talk about their personal brand for example and teach communication skills,” Sheafe says. 

As an added incentive, students who successfully complete the junior program requirements receive a $500 stipend.

Senior year: down to business

ASPIRE students do have to keep up a 3.0 GPA or higher. Senior scholars attend ongoing enrichment opportunities to build upon a foundation set in junior year, including professional nursing socialization, life skills, and college readiness. The training includes basic skills that students will need as patient care nursing assistants after high school.

“We practiced taking blood pressures with each other for what seemed like forever,” Blase says. “Once I started my job, though, that felt like it was a piece of cake.”

“We had someone who came in to teach public speaking, which helped me a lot, because I was not a fan of it,” says Tomaselli, who along the way became a clinical technician in the coronary ICU. “Things like that helped us progress and develop skills for going into the real world.”

The returning seniors will enter this second year knowing that by meeting all senior program requirements, they can earn a generous scholarship to Ursuline College Breen School of Nursing to complete their BSN degree. Senior scholars who complete all requirements will also receive a stipend, currently $500, as incentive for full participation.

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Joining the nursing workforce

The graduates are taking many memories from their experiences in the program, such as time spent in the simulation lab to replicate real patient nurse interaction, where they saw a simulation manikin’s eyes blink for the first time.

Early in the program, they constructed a vision board called Draw Your Future, which prompted them to think about where they were at that moment and where they wanted to be in the future.

“My ‘current’ state was that I was in high school, and had a job serving ice cream,” Blase recalls. “And I wanted to go to college, get my degree in nursing and get my license, and have a home and a family of my own.”

She and Tomaselli have taken big steps toward realizing the goals they had set as high school students. Both recently accepted nursing positions, Tomaselli in the ICU at Cleveland Clinic Hillcrest Hospital and Schenley in Pediatrics at main campus. The students will receive tuition help from Tri-C if they seek their bachelor’s degree at Cleveland State University within 18 months of graduating. They will also receive tuition reimbursement as Cleveland Clinic nurses.

Recently, ASPIRE partnered with Ursuline College’s Breen School of Nursing, guiding students to a direct pathway to a BSN. “Some ASPIRE scholars who were expected to graduate from Tri-C in 2022 took the opportunity to transfer to Ursuline and earn their BSN. We will still have scholars who will graduate from Tri-C in 2022 and beyond,” Sheafe says.

“It is so inspiring to see these students grow throughout the program,” she says. “When they start out, they’re just wide-eyed 16-year-old kids – they were in high school. We got to advise and guide them, and help them develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. They matured into confident adults, and will be compassionate nursing professionals who will have an impact on the future of leadership in healthcare. What a blessing to be able to pour into these students. I couldn’t be more proud.” 

From left: Daria Sheafe, MSN, RN with ASPIRE graduates Nina Tomaselli and Schenley Blase.