Nursing Students Vote University of Tennessee at Chattanooga School of Nursing #1 in U.S.

(Photo credit Angela Foster/UTC)

By Dr. Christine Benz Smith, chief health affairs officer and director of the School of Nursing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

I was floored when I first heard the news that the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga School of Nursing was voted Best Nursing School 2023 in the United States in the inaugural Student Choice Awards.

But it was the icing on the cake in capping off the historic 50th year for the UTC nursing program—a year that will profoundly transform our institution and the greater Chattanooga region.

UTC 2023 Highlights

  1. In response to the shortage of nursing providers, we launched an accelerated BSN program in August. These students have already earned bachelor’s degrees in other fields when they enroll in this three-semester program, and we will introduce new cohorts every fall, winter and summer semester. Twelve months after beginning their accelerated studies, graduates can take the NCLEX toward qualifying to work as a licensed RN. 

  2. Three substantial grant awards landed by our faculty will further enable our efforts to meet community provider and care needs. Dr. Amber Roaché was awarded a $2.6-million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to continue her work to prepare future Family Nurse Practitioners to fill care gaps in rural and underserved communities in the Chattanooga area.

  3. Dr. Kristi Wick secured a $2.6-million grant from the Tennessee Department of Health for outreach in rural, aging and underserved populations, including in multiple southeastern Tennessee communities with no local emergency medicine or hospital access. The funding will enable the purchase of a mobile health vehicle that will regularly visit rural senior centers offering education, health promotion, health screening, primary care and social services to older adults.

  4. Dr. Brooke Epperson was awarded a $1.4-million HRSA grant to prepare undergraduate students to meet the needs of rural and medically underserved populations through clinical and simulation experiences that combine academic and clinical learning. The grant will increase training opportunities for BSN students through simulation-based technology, including equipment, to increase their readiness to practice upon graduation.

  5. These educators are gearing up to help meet nearby healthcare needs as they prepare the next generation of providers to serve these communities. Overall, they work to improve access to health care and raise awareness of chronic disease management. Long-term objectives include lowering caregiver stress, increasing community resource use, reducing emergency room visits and decreasing social isolation for older adults.

  6. The majority of our Bachelor of Science in Nursing graduates—71%—remain in the Chattanooga area to work once they complete their degree, and this number jumps to 83% for our Family Nurse Practitioner graduates.

  7. In October, the exciting announcement of the construction of a brand new building for the School of Nursing took place. The Dorothy and Jim Kennedy Health Sciences Building will be the new home of the UTC School of Nursing thanks to an $8-million gift from the Kennedy Foundation, Inc.—the first building on our campus to highlight a woman and alumna. Plans call for groundbreaking in Fall 2024 with an anticipated completion in Fall 2026.

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This facility will enable us to expand our enrollment capacity by more than 150%, which is critically important given our role in preparing practice-ready nurses. The need is great because Chattanooga, with a metropolitan area population of 430,000, is considered medically underserved and urgently needs 27% more providers. There are more than a dozen rural counties within an easy drive of downtown, so we are preparing people who can go into rural areas or underserved areas—as well as students who come from rural and underserved areas who can go right back into their communities as health care providers.

Our undergraduate cohorts will increase significantly and get nurses out into the community—whether they go into an acute care facility, work in the ICUs, at the bedside or in community health. We prepare our students as generalists, and when they leave here, they can work in any area and do so effectively because they have expertise across the board.

What This Award Means To UTC

Finally, to top off our monumental year, came word of the voting results. It’s wonderful to be recognized and fantastic for prospective students looking at UTC to know that we do good things here. But it won’t change what we do here day in and day out. In fact, it will spur us on.

The most important thing about the award is that it was supported by our current students and our alumni. To me, that indicates that we are doing things well and preparing our students to thrive in the field of nursing. Even those alumni who graduated several years ago still have very positive thoughts about their time at UTC and in the School of Nursing. The positive impressions and experiences they gained from being a part of this program remain strong enough for them to feel motivated to say, “Yes, UTC is the best school in the country.”

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Why Nursing Students Choose UTC

Why did they vote for us? Affordability, NCLEX pass rates and clinical experiences. We require probably the most clinical hours of any of the schools in our state because we strongly feel that clinical experiences enable these students to enter the nursing workforce and be adequately prepared to step into any area they are asked to go to without hesitation. We have heard from hospitals that the onboarding of our students is minimal because they come in so well-prepared. Our students are ready to hit the ground running; they have the hands-on experience with excellent faculty who are experts in their fields.

The UTC School of Nursing has come a long way over its 50 years, but the mission has never wavered: To lead nursing education at all levels, encourage academic and research innovation, and engage our students to benefit our community and society. Our dedication lies in educating the next generation of nursing professionals to effectively meet their patients’ needs in any environment.

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