March 13, 2007 > California, here they come
California, here they come
By Steve Warga
Outside, Fremont's Unitek College hardly differs in appearance from the furniture store next door. Step through the glass doors, though, into a foyer designed and built, personally, by CEO Paul Afshar and visitors will experience a buzz of energy and activity. The uniquely attractive mosaic floor and glossy white dome overhead suggest that Unitek is not an average vocational technical college. The effect suggests a classy business-on-the-run with many tasks waiting in the few hours of a day.
Beyond the eye-catching entryway, multiple halls branch to the left and right, connecting a warren of individual classrooms and lab facilities. Behind those doors, hundreds of students pursue studies in fields ranging from award-winning Information Technology (IT) programs to multiple branches of medical practices, especially that of Licensed Vocational Nursing (LVN). But that's not all.
Starting April 2, Unitek will commence its first-ever "bridge training" of experienced LVNs to Associate Degree Registered Nurses (RN). The need is great and Unitek aims to meet as much of it as possible. They have invested heavily in the latest equipment and training aids, built leading-edge classrooms filled with dozens of computerized work stations for student access and participation and most importantly, recruited experienced, dedicated instructors from places far and wide. In just two years, LVN student enrollment has grown from less than 40 to over 200...and the count is rising.
The Fremont campus is now joined with locations in Santa Clara, San Francisco and Sacramento, with more branches under consideration. At every location, multitudes of nursing students, clad in bright blue "surgical scrubs" uniforms, fill the work stations and surround practice mannequins. Intelligent, earnest and eager to learn, Unitek's highly motivated students are gaining a reputation for superior technical and analytical nursing skills.
In a letter to Instructor Fred Cohen, the Ward 5 night shift nurses of Palo Alto Health Care System in Livermore said his students "have shown that given the opportunity they are eager to have 'hands on' experience; that they have a great knowledge base just waiting to be put into action on patient care."
Cohen's journey from his native Brooklyn, New York to Fremont is typical of "outside the box" thinking driving Unitek's vision. "I received a call one day from a woman asking if I'd be interested in doing some teaching. I said to her, 'Okay.' Then she told me the job was in California and I said to her, 'Miss, I live in Manhattan!'" Recruiters saw in Cohen's resume the sort of credentials and experiences they wanted. (He had posted his resume on Monster.com then forgotten about it.)
They paid Cohen's expenses for an interview and offered him the job. The man who claims, "I "never, never dreamed I'd live in California," packed his things and headed west, just like the gold-seekers in 1849.
Cohen's gold is of a different sort than the bright, yellow metal Sutter found in his creek in the Sierra Foothills. Cohen's version is of bright, eager minds motivated to acquire the skills and knowledge he loves to teach. This is what brought him and numerous others to the California sun. "The air is so clean out here," Cohen says. "You want pollution, try downtown New York City. I love it out here!"
The New Yorker teams with two other instructors, Eugenia Hatch and Daisy Rodriguez. Together, they take one group of students at a time through Unitek's state board approved curriculum divided into three levels of about three months. Each level features 40 hours per week of classroom work and hands-on laboratory exercises. In addition, many hours of clinical experience provide real-world patient assessment and care. Students must pass rigorous testing at each level before proceeding to the next. It's intense and demanding, but the rewards are many for those who finish training and earn their license.
"We have a complete career-counseling program," says Marketing Manager Lisa Long. "Our placement rate for LVNs is just about 98 percent." Given that not every student wants a job right after graduating, Unitek's placement rate is as close to perfect as possible. Employers want Unitek grads - period!
Long goes on to describe Unitek's extensive support services for all areas of student development: financing, supplies, interview techniques and more. "We ask students to bring their brains and a pencil; we'll supply everything else they'll need to succeed."
Cohen demonstrated his belief in his students one day last week during an injection practice session. Without hesitation, he rolled up his sleeve while he and Hatch patiently coached student, Simrit Gillon through a subcutaneous injection ... the teacher's! Gillon expertly completed the shot leaving everyone smiling.
Another student, Paul Fernandez, praised the thorough and patient methods of his instructors. "We practice until we're ready to demonstrate a technique. If we don't have it right, they won't sign-off on that skill until we get it right."
Fernandez and Cohen are examples of the increasing ratio of male-to-female nurses. Cohen says there is a growing demand for male nurses. Just as many female patients are more comfortable with female nurses, male patients respond in a similar fashion to male nurses. Unitek strongly encourages men to consider nursing as a profession.
Another key Unitek player recruited from back east is Administrative Director, Nursing Services Margarita Valdes. Like Cohen, Valdes is a native New Yorker who made her way to Florida, and then Texas, before heeding the California call. "I had two years left before a fully-vested retirement with a Texas community college when the Afshars approached me," she recalls. "I came out here and really liked what I found. My daughter, who lives in San Diego, told me to go for it and I did!" Valdes enthuses over the strong team spirit at Unitek and points with pride to the willingness of everyone involved to put in whatever time is needed to help students succeed.
In the heart of the greater Tri-City area, Valdes found a different sort of gold mine, as have many of her co-workers. In quietly competent fashion, Unitek College is producing a fortune of skilled and caring medical professionals to serve patient needs throughout the country.
Staff and students alike relish the challenges and savor their successes, but Valdes suggests a more personal motive that goes right to the heart of the school's mission. "If I ever find myself lying in a hospital bed, I want to look up and see one of our Unitek grads as my nurse."
For more information on Unitek's LVN and RN programs, call (888) 825-6273 or visit www.unitekcollege.com. Classes are filling rapidly.
4670 Auto Mall Parkway
(just east of Grimmer Blvd.)