The UCF College of Nursing in Research Park was bustling on a recent Monday morning in January. It was the start of the new semester, with nearly 3,000 students enrolled, including a record number of traditional bachelor’s degree students. More than a hundred undergraduates filled each classroom, laboratory and study space. Some even took to the kitchen with manikins in tow to practice how to insert an intravenous therapy needle.
Bursting at the seams is typical now for the College of Nursing, which this spring semester admitted an additional 75-student cohort to the Orlando campus for its undergraduate nursing program to help keep pace with the demand for new nurses. For years, UCF has had to turn away students because of capacity limitations, but now Mary Lou Sole, dean of the College of Nursing, says she’s excited for what’s in store — a brand-new, larger building slated to open in Lake Nona Medical City in the 2025-26 academic year. Not only will it give the College of Nursing some much-needed breathing room with additional classrooms, laboratories, study spaces and more — it also will give the college a boost in achieving its bigger mission: to help alleviate the dire shortage of nurses in Central Florida, the state and the country; and to build up a pipeline of much-needed faculty and researchers who will push the profession forward to educate future generations and innovate patient care.
A Vision From the Past With Big Implications for the Future
Visions for the College of Nursing in Lake Nona started years ago with intentions to complement UCF’s College of Medicine, established in Lake Nona in 2006 on a 50-acre plot of land. Now with the UCF Lake Nona Hospital and UCF Lake Nona Cancer Center, the College of Nursing will join the cluster that is collectively known as UCF’s Academic Health Sciences Center, a 21st-century model for medical education that brings together various disciplines where faculty and students can learn, research and practice.
Across the nation, from 2020 to 2021 — the peak of COVID-19 — about 100,000 registered nurses left the workforce.
Although years in the making, the timing is no coincidence and is a reflection of the current needs in the profession and the community. Across the nation, from 2020 to 2021 — the peak of COVID-19 — about 100,000 registered nurses left the workforce, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The significant loss is the highest observed in the past 40 years and added insult to injury as nurses — especially those near retirement age — have been exiting the workforce in droves since even before the pandemic. With a population that grows daily in size and age, the shortage is especially felt in Florida, where demand for healthcare is high.
“Florida legislators heard from their constituents that one of their primary concerns is the nursing shortage,” Sole says, “which provided us this opportunity. We’re very grateful to have the state’s support.”
In the 2022 state legislative session, UCF was allocated $29 million toward the new state-of-the-art nursing education building, which is expected to cost about $60 million total. The goal is to make up the difference with private funding, with a $10 million gift from Dr. Phillips Charities already secured, as well as $500,000 from the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation. When complete, the 90,000-square-foot building will be large enough for the College of Nursing to increase the number of students it admits by at least 50% to help steer the size of the healthcare workforce in the right direction.
According to a study published in 2021 by the Florida Hospital Association and the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, the state needs about 4,000 new nurses added to the workforce each year to avoid a shortage of nearly 60,000 nurses by 2035.
Frank Guido-Sanz, a UCF assistant professor of nursing and advanced practice registered nurse, sees the impact of the shortage firsthand every weekend. He commutes from Orlando to Miami to work in the intensive care unit of Jackson Memorial Hospital, one of the largest hospitals in the country. Part of the shortage, he says, is in the quality, not just quantity, of nurses and the ripple effects that has on patient care.
“I feel the shortage every day I work in the hospital,” Guido-Sanz says. “We lost our most senior nurses during the pandemic who were close to retirement age and decided it wasn’t worth it for them to risk being exposed. Now, we no longer have the more experienced nurses who can mentor the new ones, and that puts a burden on the rest of us who are there to fill that gap and provide education to them. The training and experience we lost in the more experienced nurses who left — that’s irreplaceable.”
UCF is graduating quality nurses who will help fill the gap. In fact, the university already provides the most newly licensed, bachelor’s degree-level (BSN) nurses out of the institutions in the State University System, and has been doing so for as long as Sole can remember. UCF’s nursing graduates exceed state and national averages on the first-time pass rate of the nursing licensure exam, and the college’s programs are nationally accredited and nationally ranked.
“Research has shown that patient outcomes are better when you have a higher percentage of BSN nurses in the workforce,” Sole says. “They become strong critical thinkers, and they have a broader-based curriculum and understanding of issues across the lifespan of nursing. We’re strong advocates of the BSN nurse.”
The state needs about 4,000 new nurses added to the workforce each year to avoid a shortage of nearly 60,000 nurses by 2035.
While waiting for the green light on the new Lake Nona building, the College of Nursing found other ways to expand its capacity. Thanks to $6.9 million in PIPELINE funding from the state, the college was able to increase enrollment by 10 seats at the UCF Cocoa and Orlando campuses, and by five seats at the UCF Daytona Beach campus in the Fall 2022 semester, in addition to the 75 seats added in Orlando this semester.
Beyond enrollment, the college has looked to cutting-edge technology and methodologies to prepare students for the front line.
Tech Elevates Education and Experience
After a bingo game night, a recently retired woman checks in to the emergency room because she’s suddenly dizzy, and having trouble walking and maintaining her balance. Within minutes, nurses ask her a series of questions such as her age and what month it is, and to complete a series of tasks — including raising her eyebrows, following a nurse’s finger movement with her eyes, and extending her arms outward and holding them there for 10 seconds. Using the National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale, the nurses determine that the woman is showing signs of a stroke, and immediately order lab work and a CT scan to identify the full extent of her health. Heightened emotions fill the room as the patient, and her loved ones waiting for information, are in distress.
UCF’s College of Nursing is one of only nine programs worldwide to earn the Healthcare Simulation Standards Endorsement from the International Nursing Association for Clinical Simulation and Learning.
It’s real-life scenarios like this that nursing students practice without even setting foot in a hospital, thanks to augmented reality, virtual reality (VR), high-fidelity manikins and other simulation tools infused into the UCF nursing curriculum. The College of Nursing is internationally recognized for its use of simulation, including an accreditation from the Society for Simulation in Healthcare, and more recently becoming one of just nine in the world to be endorsed in Healthcare Simulation Standards by the International Nursing Association for Clinical Simulation and Learning.
“This way [using simulation] we ensure all our learners are exposed to a variety of patient experiences that we can’t guarantee they’ll have a chance to see in the hospital before they enter the workforce,” says Desiree Díaz, an associate professor and undergraduate simulation coordinator for UCF’s nursing program. Díaz is one of about 100 who are advanced certified in healthcare simulation education.
Along with colleagues, Díaz is helping design a dedicated space at the future nursing building where students will be immersed in different scenarios through VR. Screens that surround the room will project common hospital occurrences like heart attacks, strokes, childbirth, diabetes and severe wounds. Students can see expressions on faces, hear sounds of distress and machines, watch professionals make decisions in real time and learn how to do so as well.
These immersive technology tools help alleviate the burdens of the nursing shortage, too.
Kaitlyn Yu, a senior in the BSN, saw firsthand the shortage and its impact on nursing education while completing her rotations — a time when nurses in training get supervised, hands-on experience in a hospital or other healthcare setting. Typically, each student is paired with a nurse to work alongside and receive mentorship, but during her time, there weren’t enough nurses to pair with students.
“Simulation helped fill that gap,” Yu says. “While there is a bit of pressure [becoming a nurse in the midst of a shortage], it’s all still very exciting.”
Developing Well-rounded Nurses for More Than Just Hospitals
Growing up in a family of medical professionals, Yu has had her sights set on nursing as a profession since high school. She admired how her parents were always ready to tackle any health circumstance she or her sister experienced growing up, and she wants that kind of knowledge for herself. She envisions working in primary or emergency care, but through the UCF nursing program, she’s learned there are other paths her career can take her, too.
While the traditional route of nursing is acute care in a hospital, nurses are needed in a variety of settings. For instance, Yu may one day want to be a school nurse or even return to higher education as a faculty member to train the next generation. Upon graduation, she intends to earn a graduate degree so these additional doors are open to her down the road.
“The curriculum does a great job of giving a well-rounded view of what it means to be a nurse,” Yu says. “I think people will often find their initial perception of being a nurse is actually not all-encompassing of what the opportunities really are. For those considering this profession, I would encourage them to give it a chance.”
Nurses work in schools, long-term care facilities, community health centers, mental health institutions, nursing homes and healthcare research. They also consult community leaders on risk factors that affect their communities and how certain policy decisions can make a difference. More nurses are needed in all these areas.
“We’re tasked with thinking about growth in all capacities,” Sole says. “We need to expand the undergraduate population to expand the nursing workforce. We need to expand the graduate programs because we need more faculty to teach the workforce. And we need to grow the number of Ph.D. students to expand the research and science of the field.”
UCF graduates the most newly licensed registered nurses in Florida’s State University System. With the new nursing building, it can graduate about 58% more.
Sole expects to hire an additional 30 faculty members upon opening the new College of Nursing building in Lake Nona to accommodate the larger number of students who will be admitted into the program.
Michelle Tall ’17MS ’21PhD has been a nurse for 33 years, first in New York and then in Central Florida after moving to the region in 1993. She’s worked in emergency rooms, surgery units, marketing and sales departments, and in the nonprofit sector of healthcare. Now, she’s a visiting lecturer in the College of Nursing after earning a master’s and doctorate from UCF.
In a course called Nursing as a Profession, she works with prospective nursing students. The course covers the history of nursing, examines different nursing specialties, delves into the art and science of nursing, and so much more. A big part, she says, is self-reflection and asking oneself, “Why do I want to become a nurse?”
“People want to feel good about what they’re doing. It can help avoid burnout, which is very real in nursing,” Tall says. “It’s a win-win [for the workforce] whether they want to be a nurse at a hospital, a school, their church — either way, they’re helping the community, and we want them to know how dynamic the field is so they can best choose for themselves the path they want to take.”
Part of what she teaches is public health nursing and how the profession affords students an opportunity to gain knowledge and work with different cultures, races, ethnicities, incomes, education levels and other demographic differences. Last year, UCF received two grants — one from Bank of America and another from the U.S. Department of Education — totaling nearly $3 million to support Hispanic/Latino/a/x students pursuing careers in healthcare. UCF was awarded these grants because of its demonstrated commitment to serving Hispanic students. In 2019, the university was designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education for surpassing 25% undergraduate Hispanic enrollment, and for having institutional programs and resources in place for this student demographic.
Just 6% of nurses are Hispanic/Latino/a/x, yet individuals of these backgrounds account for 18.5% of the U.S.population. With the grants, the college will offer more information sessions in Spanish, as well as faculty office hours and other resources for Spanish-speaking students. The College of Nursing also plans to launch a certificate program called Healthcare Serving the Hispanic Community to better prepare students to serve these individuals with culturally congruent care.
“In nursing, it takes a village,” Tall says. “We don’t always have a script for it. It’s really the caring, the compassion and the communication that’s embedded in nursing [that drives it forward].”
A Nursing Program for the Future, and for the Fastest-growing State
When Sole meets with hospital leaders in Central Florida, every one of them tells her their hospital system is expanding.
“Every large healthcare provider in the region is growing, building facilities, freestanding emergency rooms and new specialty units,” she says. “The demand for healthcare grows as the population grows.”
For the first time since 1957, Florida is the fastest-growing state in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The major healthcare systems in Central Florida are AdventHealth, Orlando Health and HCA Florida Healthcare, and each of them has goals to expand in areas of the region experiencing significant growth. AdventHealth plans to build new hospitals in Minneola and New Smyrna Beach, and Orlando Health plans to build freestanding emergency departments in St. Petersburg and Reunion in Osceola County. HCA Florida Healthcare, which is UCF’s partner in the UCF Lake Nona Medical Center, has its sights set on The Villages, Gainesville and Fort Myers, the Orlando Sentinel reports. These plans just scratch the surface of what’s in store.
In 2022, UCF’s new nursing building was allocated $29M in state funding and gifted $10M from Dr. Phillips Charities.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of all our clinical partners,” Sole says. “We have strong partnerships with all our local providers and are working hard to be the nursing program to meet their growing needs.”
While it will take time to heal the impact of the pandemic and other factors on the nursing workforce, Central Florida is poised to reap the benefits. More than 14,000 nurses have graduated from UCF since 1979, and 85% of them still live and work in Florida — a trend that is expected to continue.
Sole’s focus for the immediate future is to continue advocating for the value UCF’s new nursing facility will provide for the state, and the need for supporters to invest in helping get the project off the ground. After years of waiting, she’s ready to take the College of Nursing to the next level.
“I’m thrilled. It’s so much fun planning and designing our next phase,” Sole says. “I truly believe that we can become the nursing program for the future.”