close
close

‘They Want You to Be Here’: Rural Immersion Program Enables UNK Health Sciences Students to Reach Communities That Need Them

Brodie Mitchell, a UNK medical student, talks with a health care provider at Sidney Regional Medical Center during her time in the Rural Immersion Program. (Photo: Erika Pritchard, UNK Communications)

SIDNEY – Brodie Mitchell and Alexys Hurt sat at a table in a cozy coffee shop just off Interstate 80, sipping specialty drinks and talking about their decision to pursue careers in health care.

Students at the University of Nebraska at Kearney spoke about their desire to help others and make a positive impact in their communities.

“It’s a very demanding career, but it’s also a very rewarding one,” said Mitchell, a second-year Cambridge pre-med student. “When you can see first-hand how your work improves someone’s life, it’s something that’s just so rewarding.”

Mitchell wants to practice family medicine with obstetrics, which will allow him to care for patients of all ages. Hurt plans to work in radiologic technology, another of more than 20 pre-professional programs offered by UNK Health Sciences.

“There are so many options in health care,” the sophomore from Dannebrog said. “You can go into so many things. It’s not just one specific career path.”

UNK health sciences students Brodie Mitchell and Alexys Hurt tour Legion Park in Sydney during their Rural Immersion Program. (Photo: Erika Pritchard, UNK Communications)

Both UNK students are part of the Health Sciences Club and the Kearney Health Opportunities Program (KHOP), a collaboration with the University of Nebraska Medical Center that provides scholarships, academic support and professional development classes for those planning to pursue health care careers in rural areas.

“Coming from a small town, I know what rural hospitals do for the community,” Hurt said. “It’s a completely different experience than larger hospitals. You can do a lot more in a rural hospital and have more personal relationships with patients because you’re in a smaller community. That’s a big part of why I want to stay rural.”

“I think there’s something to be said for the camaraderie you build in a small town,” Mitchell added. “You’re not just another doctor. I want those personal relationships with my patients because I feel like that makes everything so much more fulfilling and rewarding.”

They heard the same comments on a recent trip to Sydney, a town of 6,400.

UNK students Alexys Hurt and Brodie Mitchell gained first-hand experience in rural health care through the Rural Immersion Program. They shadowed professionals at Sidney Regional Medical Center and spent five days in the western Nebraska community. (Photo: Erika Pritchard, UNK Communications)

TRANSFORMATIONAL EXPERIENCE

Mitchell and Hurt spent five days in the western Nebraska community participating in the new Rural Immersion Program.

Available to any UNK health sciences student, this innovative program gives Lopers the opportunity to experience rural health care firsthand, going far beyond traditional networking events and hospital tours. Participants are exposed to many aspects of the profession—administration, laboratory services, the emergency department, surgery, radiology, and pharmacy, to name a few—allowing them to see how these individuals work together to care for patients.

Julie Calahan, coordinator of employee engagement and retention in UNK’s health sciences department, calls it a “transformational learning experience.”

“The Rural Immersion Program is a unique opportunity for our students to gain valuable insights and experiences that go beyond the classroom,” she said. “Students can connect with healthcare providers and participate in hands-on experiences, as well as learn more about the hospital and the community as a whole.”

The program launched in January 2024, when two students spent time in McCook and shadowed Community Hospital, which welcomed another student last month. A total of five UNK students will participate in the program through Sidney Regional Medical Center this summer, including Mitchell and Hurt.

“Our goal is to help meet the demand for workforce across the state,” Calahan said. “When we place students in these communities for an extended period of time, they have a deeper opportunity to engage and learn about the dynamics of the hospital. They also have the opportunity to meet with community leaders and learn about local initiatives.

“When they graduate from vocational school and are ready to start their careers, they will have these points of connection to these rural communities. We hope they will look back on these experiences where they really connected with the community and ultimately choose to live and work there.”

FULFILLING A NEED

With more than 900 undergraduate health sciences students currently enrolled at UNK, the Rural Immersion Program could prove to be an important recruiting tool for hospitals struggling with staffing shortages.

There is a pressing need for more healthcare workers across Nebraska, and Sidney is no exception.

Jason Petik, CEO of Sidney Regional Medical Center, called the current shortage “scary as hell.”

“We have a workforce that has unfortunately been through the pandemic over the last four years and it’s really hit us hard,” he said. “It’s really hard for us to replace the people we’ve lost.”

With about 400 employees and an annual payroll of more than $55 million, SRMC remains a driving force in the region’s economy and, more importantly, a necessity for the people who live there. It is the state’s second-largest critical access hospital, providing services that would otherwise be a 90-minute drive away.

During the visit, UNK students had the opportunity to see the expansion of the long-term care facility, which is scheduled to open in September, and learned about plans to build a new cancer center. The current SRMC facility was completed in 2015, so that’s also a sign of the progress that’s happening there.

“Sidney has a lot of advantages,” Petik said. “Yes, it’s a rural area and we don’t have access to absolutely everything all the time. But we have a very close-knit community and a very positive culture. We’re trying to grow.”

And they want UNK graduates to be part of that growth.

SRMC and more than a dozen other providers are part of UNK’s Hospital Partners program. Representatives traveled to Kearney for the first Hospital Partners networking event in February, and a group of KHOP students visited the hospital in Sydney at the end of the semester.

Of course, Petik hopes these interactions will lead to job offers in the future. But he also understands the importance of promoting rural health care across the state.

“We want to help them understand that they can have a huge impact on people’s lives in health care, and it doesn’t have to be in Lincoln or Omaha,” Petik said. “It could be in Holdrege. It could be in Imperial. It could be in Gordon. These young adults need to realize that their skills are so needed in rural areas.”

UNK health sciences students Alexys Hurt and Brodie Mitchell hang out at Beans and Steams Coffee House in Sidney as part of the Rural Immersion Program. (Photo: Erika Pritchard, UNK Communications)

BETTER FUTURE

Mitchell’s grandparents live in nearby Lodgepole, and his aunt and uncle own a popular ice cream parlour in Sydney, so Mitchell was already familiar with the area.

Still, he was excited about the prospect of looking at health care “from a different perspective.”

“If there’s one thing I learned from job shadowing, it’s that no matter where you go, it’s almost always different,” said Mitchell, who works as a medical scribe at Tri Valley Health System in Cambridge. “Yes, you’re still treating patients, but the structure isn’t always the same.”

He was “really impressed” with SRMC and the amount of community support the hospital receives.

“Listening to them talk about how important patient care is to them and how they are working to make it more efficient and effective makes me even more excited about the future of health care,” Mitchell said.

Hurt also had positive experiences.

“I really like it,” she said of Sidney. “There’s a lot more to it than I thought. When they say it’s a country town, it’s not what I expected.”

During a tour of the area, Cheyenne County Tourism Director Kendra Mitchell showed life beyond the hospital. There’s a vibrant downtown with a historic steakhouse, a chic boutique, a unique bike shop, the “cutest” two-screen movie theater and more. Every summer, the Downtown Sounds outdoor concert series is held there, and a “creative district” is in the works to support similar activities and events.

Sidney also has a stunning golf course, beautiful parks and trails, and easy access to outdoor adventures in Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. The community is just 100 miles from Cheyenne and 170 from Denver for those who want “a little bit of the city.”

Kendra Mitchell, a former chairwoman of the Cheyenne County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, and her now-husband moved there from Fort Worth, Texas, more than a decade ago to work for Cabela’s. Although the outdoor retailer is no longer headquartered in Sidney, the young couple stayed because they love the tight-knit community.

“You don’t have to live in a big city to have a full life,” she said. “You can pursue a pretty adventurous career right here in our small community.”

Julie Slagle agrees.

The vice president of patient care services at SRMC has lived in Sidney for nearly three decades, serving as director of workforce development at a community nursing facility and teaching nursing at Western Nebraska Community College before joining the hospital 13 years ago.

He describes Sidney as “family” that looks out for each other.

“If you spend any time here, you understand the importance of the hospital to the community and you understand the importance of the community to western Nebraska,” Slagle said. “You immerse yourself in all that we have to offer and you really get a sense of how welcoming this community is.”

This message did not escape the attention of UNK students visiting the university.

“These critical access hospitals in rural communities want you to be here,” Brodie Mitchell said. “They want to show you what they’re all about, because they want you to come and work for them someday.”

“Spending a whole week here, I get to know these people, and they get to know me,” he added. “Networking is a huge part of job hunting now, and it all comes down to who you know. So the more people you know, the more options you have, the better prepared you are for your future career.”

The UNK School of Health Sciences plans to continue to expand the Rural Immersion Program, with Cozad Community Health System joining in January and other hospital partners likely to follow.

“I want to be able to offer two to three Rural Immersion programs every year for students to take advantage of,” Calahan said. “We will continue to make sure that this is another resource for them to get the most out of their educational experience.”