Diane McElwee always wanted to be a nurse. After graduating from Cape May County Technical High School, she attended Camden County College while working as a receptionist in a dentist’s office to make money to pay her tuition.
She eventually became a certified dental assistant and earned her radiology license. She loved working with patients, but felt she was missing the chance to pursue her calling as a nurse.
After 14 years on the job, McElwee became a stay-at-home mom to her two children. But, last year, both children began school full time. McElwee said she thought about returning to work in the dental office, but she felt the call of nursing.
“This was the perfect opportunity for a fresh start,” she said. “I’m going to go do something that I’ve always wanted to do.”
So McElwee, now 35, returned to her alma mater in August and began an 11-month licensed practical nursing program for adult students.
The fact that the program started in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic was not a deterrent for her, but, rather, served as a motivating factor.
“So many people would say to me, ‘Why would you want to go back to school to be a nurse in a pandemic?’ But I would say, ‘Why not now?’ This is where you’re needed the most. You want to make a difference and you’re helping people,” McElwee said. “We become nurses because we want to make an impact in someone’s life and want to help people.”
McElwee and her classmates in the LPN program are already working on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. They have administered more than 1,000 vaccine doses at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point.
Kelly Edelman, the coordinator and an instructor in the practical nursing program, said the COVID-19 vaccines are part of the students’ clinical rotations.
“As soon as the COVID-19 vaccine became available, our students have been on the front lines helping administer it to health care workers,” Edelman said. “This group has been very flexible and very engaged and is living the changes as they are occurring in health care. They’re really jumping in headfirst to assist with it.”
Cape Tech is one of nine county vocational-technical schools in New Jersey to offer an LPN program for adults approved by the New Jersey Board of Nursing. Several county colleges in the state, as well as hospitals and private post-secondary technical schools, also offer LPN programs.
Students who complete an LPN program must pass the NCLEX-PN exam to become licensed.
Edelman said about half the adult students at Cape Tech who become LPNs will continue their schooling to become registered nurses and possibly even complete a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree..
“We encourage them to continue their education,” Edelman said. “A big part of our curriculum is telling them that (their) education shouldn’t stop once they are done with us. We try to look at LPN as a steppingstone. We want them to continue to build those nursing skills and get more education to become an RN, even a BSN and beyond.”
LPNs are in high demand, especially now, and can command a good salary. There are nearly 18,000 people in New Jersey employed as LPNs, with an average hourly wage of $27 per hour and annual wages averaging more than $57,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The number of LPN jobs is projected to grow 9% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the DOL.
The LPN program at Cape Tech attracts a wide variety of students of all ages. Some have just graduated from high school, while others are older adults looking to make a career change.
Michael Auble was a police officer in Atlantic City for 13 years when he decided it was time to do something different. Auble, 35, began the LPN program at Cape Tech in August. While he wasn’t inspired by the pandemic to become an LPN, he said he is glad he made the choice.
“Now, I’m able to help people out, especially since we just started our clinical rotations,” Auble said. “You can see these guys are really worn out and tired. They’ve been dealing with this close to a year. “
Like McElwee, Ashley Andel knew she wanted to go into nursing from a young age. After graduating from high school, she became a medical assistant. She started the LPN program at Cape Tech in August 2019 and began clinical rotations only a few weeks before the pandemic hit last year. She said the program continued through the pandemic.
Andel, 33, graduated in August and is working as an LPN at Cape Regional Urgent Care. She is also volunteering for Cape May’s Medical Reserve Corps and will be giving the COVID-19 vaccination.
“I go to bed every night thankful that I made it through another day,” Andel said. “I’m extremely thankful that I have the expertise and I’m able to give the time to help vaccinate people, because that’s one of our biggest obstacles to getting everyone vaccinated. We could have the vaccine, but we need people to give it. I’m extremely grateful that I have the opportunity to do that.”