FORT KENT, Maine — Fourteen nursing students from the Republic of the Marshall Islands have traveled halfway around the world to the University of Maine at Fort Kent to take part in the country’s first online baccalaureate nursing program.
The students, who all hold associate degrees in nursing, are on the Fort Kent campus in a five-week intensive summer session as part of the two-year, online bachelor of science in nursing program.
“These students are really the pioneers for this program,” Wilson Hess, UMFK president said. “This cohort of students will be the first nurses [earning bachelor of science degrees] in all of Micronesia.”
The island country, located in the northern Pacific Ocean, is part of the larger island group of Micronesia, with a population of approximately 68,000 people, spread out over 34 low-lying coral atolls, made up of 1,156 individual islands.
While not new to the republic, online courses have never enjoyed great success on the Marshall Islands, Hess said, due to a basic unfamiliarity with the dynamics of computer-generated courses.
Before taking the UMFK presidency in 2010, Hess served as president of the College of the Marshall Islands.
“In the culture of the Marshall Islands knowledge is transferred directly from one person to another,” Ellia Sablan-Zebedy, UMFK’s dean of enrollment management and Marshall Islands native, said. “Online learning is totally different.”
The president and dean worked together at the College of the Marshall Islands before reuniting at UMFK.
Giving the students the skills and tools to tackle online learning is the whole point to the summer session, Hess said.
“They are learning the things here to make the program successful,” he said. “It’s all about learning how to learn online.”
That’s why the students are spending time every day with Lena Michaud, UMFK’s director of student support services, in their first online nursing course.
“My goal is to make them successful online learners,” Michaud said. “They are learning everything from computer skills to study strategies.”
Among the challenges facing the students when they return home, Michaud said, is unreliable Internet service on the Marshall Islands.
“I am encouraging them to go online every day, if they can,” she said. “But I also realize the Internet is not always available to them.”
In addition to spotty Internet connections, the students all also have family obligations and work full time.
“We are also talking about time management,” Michaud said, adding the students are eager pupils. “They don’t say much, so I just talk, talk, talk.”
The idea behind promoting the BSN program on the Marshall Islands, Hess said, is to improve the overall health care in that country.
“These students will become the leaders and future teachers of their fellow nurses,” he said.
Current health care standards in the Marshall Islands, he said, are those of a developing third-world country. Nurses have associate degrees while most of the doctors are from the international organization Doctors Without Borders.
UMFK, Hess said, is well positioned to offer the BSN program to the Marshall Island nursing students.
“As a country, the Marshall Islands are quite rural,” Hess said. “We know rural here and are good at teaching rural health.”
Taking a break from classes to enjoy some UMFK cooking — pizza seemed to be the favorite this day — the students say they are excited to be part of the new program.
“It’s a rare opportunity to come here,” Veronica Togiyeru, said. “We really appreciate it [but] this is really a challenge.”
Julie Anjolok holds an associate degree as a nurse midwife and is looking to increase her knowledge base in that area and sharing that knowledge with her colleagues.
“Back home we have a simulation lab with a birthing mother [mannequin],” she said. “But there is no one who knows how to use it.”
Anjolok is looking forward to upcoming training in UMFK’s simulation lab so she can, in turn, train others in her country.
“What we learn here and online is going to benefit our whole population,” Anjolok said.
According to Hess, The Friends of the College of the Marshall Islands has carried out a Pacific Healthcare Initiative over the past five years with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the University of Hawaii, the Bank of Guam and a variety of other funders.
That initiative, he said, has been joined by the World Health Organization, the Pacific Islands Health Officers Association, Human Resources in Health initiative and the American Pacific Nursing Leaders Education Committee.
“There is great interest in this first group of students,” he said.
“It is such a wonderful idea,” Sablan-Zebedy said. “I am so proud of these students.”
Proud to be a part of the program is Erin Soucy, director of UMFK nursing.
“This is going so well and is a great opportunity for the Marshall Island students and for us,” Soucy said.
“The health care system in the Marshall Islands is different than ours, so we are all learning from each other.”
Among the skills the students hope to acquire, Soucy said, are those which enable them to take leadership roles within their country’s health care system.
“They will be the new health leaders in hospital administration, public health and health issues for their fellow countrymen,” Soucy said. “They really want this.”
It’s not all about books, computers and learning, Sablan-Zebedy said.
While in northern Maine the students have had opportunities to tour the area and soak up some St. John Valley hospitality.
For their part, the students are in unanimous agreement on two things — the friendliness of the area’s residents and that the recent warm temperatures are not really all that warm by Marshall Islands standards.
The Pacific nation nursing students are enrolled in UMFK’s online program thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Freeman Foundation to The Friends of the College of the Marshall Islands.
After spending the fall, winter and spring taking the UMFK courses online, the students will return to campus next summer for a second five-week session and their BSN degree.
“We know we are the pioneers,” Togiyeru said. “We are blessed to be here.”