Nursing program tradition

`Milestone': Each year before the HCC commencement, students wearing the white uniforms of their profession hold a recognition ceremony for a last moment of camaraderie, thanks and pageantry.

May 23, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Before Howard Community College awarded diplomas to hundreds of students dressed in black caps and gowns Friday, 38 nursing graduates walked across the stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion wearing white uniforms with traditional peaked nursing caps for the women.

Each year, the nursing students plan a recognition ceremony before commencement that gives them one more opportunity for camaraderie, thanks and a little pageantry.

"The students have opted to keep the traditions," said Sharon Pierce, director of nursing.

This year was the 30th anniversary of the HCC nursing program, which has graduated more than 1,900 students.

A key moment each year is the awarding of pins that indicate the wearer is an HCC nursing graduate. Giving out pins is a practice at many nursing schools that Pierce said dates back to Florence Nightingale.

"Every nurse remembers this, getting pinned," she said.

The ceremony also included student speakers, the lighting of candles in holders shaped like oil lamps and the recitation of a nursing pledge.

As a personal touch, students submitted a card with thanks to their family, friends and teachers to be read while they received their pins.

Gratitude for family support was also an important theme for speaker Becky Partenza of New Windsor.

Partenza, 29, has four children younger than age 5. She said the rigorous program "left very little room for free time. ... You really had to come home and put your face in a book for hours just to understand things."

She said she and many of her peers felt guilty about not having enough time for their children. At the same time, she said, "It's nice to be a good role model to my kids. I was happy to have them see me going to school and doing homework and doing things that were hard."

Trying to hold back tears from the beginning of her speech, Partenza said that among the many things she learned from the program and its instructors were that spouses do know how to do the laundry, that good friends come from stressful times, and that not only illness but smiles are contagious.

Guest speaker Bernadine Hallinan-Smith, the founding director of the nursing program, talked about what the school was like when the program began in 1974. She said the college had one building, Columbia had 20,000 people and there was no hospital. Today, the community college has a burgeoning campus, Columbia has 90,000 residents, and Howard County General Hospital is a growing and respected medical center.

Friday's ceremony "is certainly a milestone and certainly an occasion to be celebrated," she said.

Hallinan-Smith went on to say that plenty of nursing jobs were available for graduates in 1974, but that the intervening years saw cutbacks at many facilities. Today, Maryland and the nation face a growing nursing shortage, she said.

She called on the graduates to help advocate for work environments where nurses will want to stay.

In the afternoon, many of the nursing students joined graduates from all departments for the college commencement ceremony amid humid air and the drone of cicadas from beyond the open-sided amphitheater.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey gave the keynote speech, in which he urged the graduates to embrace the choices in their lives and learn from the good and the bad ones.

Roger N. Caplan, chairman of the college's board of trustees, pointed out that many awaiting their degrees were part of a growing trend of traditional-age students who have chosen to begin their college career at a community college.

"You have our utmost respect and admiration," he told the class. And, he added, as only the second class in HCC history to be serenaded by the 17-year cicadas, "consider yourself special."

As one of two student speakers, Pamela Ford of Columbia talked about her experience as one of the less-traditional students at the school.

She said she started and stopped her studies several times over two decades as she raised a family and worked as a sales representative.

When she was laid off from her job in 2001, she decided it was time to earn her associate's degree and started attending HCC alongside her sons, Andrew, 22, and Josh, 20, both business majors.

"With tenacity, persistence, a lot of starts and some luck, I've gotten to [graduation]," she said. "When I started this journey, most of my fellow graduates weren't even born yet. I kind of took a different path."

Ford, 42, who works in sales for a food broker, plans to get married in December and take a rest from school. But she said she might consider more education in the future.

"If you want it bad enough, you have to make it work," she said.

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