Angelique C. Graham of Columbia said her passion for nursing comes from personal experience on the other side of the stethoscope.
She battled acute myelogenous leukemia as a young adult. She said she remembers in particular one nurse whose comments left her discouraged and another who, when she was feeling defeated, told her to keep fighting and "prepared me for everything that could possibly happen."
The supportive nurse "was able to make a difference," she said, and even the one who was not made her realize that "nurses are key to everyone's recovery."
After 10 years in another career, one year on the waiting list for Howard Community College's nursing program and more than two years of rigorous study, Graham was among 39 soon-to-be registered nurses to graduate last week.
Most of the class took part in a ceremony Tuesday evening during which the students received pins and symbolic lamps, and recited a pledge to be responsible, accountable and protective of their clients. They will go on to take their licensing exams in the coming months.
HCC leaders say they would like to see many more graduates cross the stage and go on to fill much-needed roles in nursing and other allied health fields. But Sharon Pierce, chairwoman of the college's health sciences division, said, "We are out of space for all intents and purposes."
With the addition of a second admissions period in the spring and an accelerated program that allows some students to earn their RN degrees in 13 months, the HCC nursing program has more than doubled, reaching a total of about 370 students per year. About 40 students are on the waiting list, Pierce said.
According to a survey conducted this summer by the Maryland Hospital Association, Maryland needs 2,603 more full-time nurses. A 2006 study commissioned by the association projected a shortfall of 10,000 nurses in 10 years.
The recent MHA survey also found vacancy rates in excess of 15 percent for physician assistants, occupational therapists, speech therapists and respiratory therapists, as well as a need for more professionals in laboratory, nutrition services, pharmacy, rehabilitation and respiratory therapy.
HCC officials say the school lacks the labs and classrooms to expand programs, such as those for cardiovascular technicians or emergency medical services personnel, or to start programs in other health fields.
The college is seeking support for a new nursing and allied health building on the Columbia campus. The first step is a request for nearly $4 million in combined state and county funds for the planning and design phase.
HCC's president, Kate Hetherington, along with a board member and a student, made a case for that funding - and for funds for a new parking garage - at a county hearing Thursday night.
Pierce said that it is clearly a difficult economic time to be asking for funds from government sources. But those circumstances are driving more people to community colleges, she said.
"Jobs in health care are not going to go away," Pierce said, adding that she hopes elected officials will see money for education programs in the health field as an investment in the well-being of the state and its residents.
Georgene Butler, director of nursing programs, said she would particularly like to expand the accelerated nursing program, which would get nurses "trained and at the bedside" quickly.
While HCC takes advantage of simulations with electronically controlled mannequins, a more advanced, dedicated simulation lab would be a big benefit to the program, Butler said.
There is no shortage of nursing applicants, many of whom are driven by a desire to help others and the need for a career that is stable and pays well, she said.
Graham, 36, is a native of Memphis, Tenn., who started her nursing studies a decade ago. Her illness made it difficult to continue with school. In time, she moved to a career in human resources.
She worked for several organizations before landing at a company in Columbia. When her position there was dissolved in 2004, she decided it was time to return to her goal of becoming a nurse. She applied to HCC.
Graham spent two semesters on the waiting list, during which she took other required classes as a full-time student. She started the program to become a registered nurse in January 2006.
She plans to pursue a bachelor's degree at the University of Maryland before she moves back to Memphis.
"It goes back to doing something I feel good about," she said.
That sentiment was echoed by the student speaker, elected by the graduates, to offer remarks at the nursing ceremony.
Eric Boyer, 46, said he was looking for a new career that would "bring me joy." Even with the long hours of study, the tension-filled exams and the time away from loved ones, he said, "school is a small price to pay to touch that many lives."