Issue 9 Stories

Nichole W. Allen, a patient care representative at Sentara Martha Jefferson Orthopedics, had been trying to obtain her college degree for decades, but life kept getting in the way. 

First, there was marriage and motherhood, then a string of medical and personal crises, including two bouts with breast cancer and a divorce. Through it all, however, Nichole managed to stay positive. She focused on raising her son, Anthony, even as she worked in a variety of full-time roles in the medical industry, including as a certified nursing assistant and scheduling coordinator. And when her schedule and budget allowed, she continued to pursue her schooling. 

In 2018, as Nichole celebrated her 44th birthday and watched her son graduate from high school and prepare to head off to Old Dominion University (ODU), she couldn’t help but wonder if she would ever achieve her own education goals. 

Despite her hard work, she still needed to complete seven more classes to earn her associate’s degree in healthcare management. 

“I felt like I’d been going to school forever,” the Charlottesville native admits. “But I couldn’t see an end date because I would always have to wait and see if I could afford to take that next class. I never wanted my goal to take away from providing the essentials or making sure that my son had what he needed. If the money wasn’t there, then school would have to wait.” 

One day this past summer, Nichole received an email detailing a new scholarship offered to Sentara employees by the Martha Jefferson Hospital Foundation’s Center for Clinical Education Program. With the support of her practice manager and her colleagues, Nichole decided to apply. The Foundation awarded her a scholarship for the fall 2018 semester. 

“It’s been a tremendous help, a real blessing,” Nichole says. “Without the financial stress, I can really focus on finishing school.” 

The scholarship, which pays for tuition, mandatory fees and books, allowed Nichole to double up on coursework at Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC) and finally set a timeline to graduation. 

This fall, she studied business statistics and a required elective, and in the spring semester she will take Principles of Accounting I and the associated lab. After that, she’ll just have to complete a second accounting course and lab, an internship (likely with Sentara), and one more elective. 

As long as she maintains a C average, Nichole will be eligible to continue receiving Foundation scholarship funds. 

“I’m on track now to graduate in December 2019, and I can’t wait to wear that graduation gown,” Nichole says proudly. 

Once she has her degree, Nichole will be able to advance within Sentara. Among the positions she’ll be eligible for are team coordinator, team lead and manager. 

As difficult as her life journey has been at times, Nichole says that it’s all been worth it. “It’s made me the person I am today,” she notes. 

For example, her two-time battle with breast cancer, first at the age of 27 and then again three years later, allows her to empathize with and encourage patients. 

“I know that feeling of hearing devastating medical news and what it means to face surgery and treatment,” she says, explaining that her work area is adorned with pink beads and a ceramic turtle with “survivor” displayed on its back to constantly remind her of what she has overcome. “So I always smile and try to help patients realize that as hard as that moment may be, they will get through it, and it will all be OK.” 

Nichole’s dogged push to get her college degree also has inspired her son. Anthony, 19, is now studying kinesiology at ODU and is already talking about going to graduate school to become a physician’s assistant. 

As for Nichole, once she gets her associate’s degree, she just might decide to pursue her bachelor’s degree, if the funding is available and she can find a program that suits her schedule. “I know that whatever I set my mind to, I can do,” she says. “More than anything, I’ve learned through all this that I am tenacious.” 

Center for Clinical Education 

Following the huge success of the Haden Nursing Institute, which has a primary goal of advancing nursing education to help improve patient healthcare outcomes, Sentara Martha Jefferson leaders noted that nonnursing clinical staff and patients would benefit from the same focus and philanthropy-aided support through the hospital’s Center for Clinical Education. 

Launched in 2017 with initial community gifts, the first round of scholarship requests were offered in early May 2018 for the summer/fall 2018 school term. 

All Sentara employees, based on length of employment, have access to tuition assistance program (TAP) funds for certain educational pursuits. The objective was not to supplant those funds, but rather to essentially match them, thereby providing a greater benefit and more opportunities for our staff. 

Twenty-two scholarships, including Nichole’s, were funded through that first round. In fall 2018 an additional 12 were added, while continuing the commitment to employees in good standing who are pursuing multiyear programs. Fourteen awardees are working toward bachelor’s or higher degrees, and two are studying at PVCC. Specialty certifications being completed (and not eligible for TAP funding) include lactation consultant, weight management and smoking cessation specialist (through our Cardiac Rehab Program), pharmacotherapy specialist and certified athletic trainer in our Sports Medicine Clinic. One of our monitor technicians, an entry-level position, is becoming an emergency medical technician to move to the Emergency Department and fulfilling prerequisites for nursing school. 

Community philanthropy is making the difference for these employees, like Nichole, and the scores who will follow them, along with their nursing colleagues. Indeed, they are arguably among our greatest assets at Sentara Martha Jefferson.

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