Jennifer Gentry remembers taking her Clinical Performance in Nursing Exam (CPNE) like it was yesterday. Now a chief nursing officer in the CHRISTUS Spohn Health System in Southern Texas, she’s helping other aspiring RNs complete their degrees by hosting a CPNE testing site at CHRISTUS Spohn’s Alice, Texas, location.
As any Excelsior student in the School of Nursing can tell you, the CPNE is the capstone of the associate degree program. It’s the assessment designed to measure a student’s ability to demonstrate the expected behaviors and skills of a beginning-level associate degree-prepared nurse. Once successfully completed, the CPNE validates that the student possesses the competencies to begin practice as an entry-level nurse. With the associate degree in hand, individuals can sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) that allows them to practice nursing in their state.
Gentry recalls her CPNE experience as the most challenging event in her nursing career, but one with big benefits. Starting her career as an LVN, and then progressing through Excelsior’s associate, bachelor’s and master’s programs in nursing, Gentry’s career advanced as well. With that success came a desire to give back to her alma mater. “I feel like, honestly, Excelsior has done so much for me,” she says. “I would not be where I am today without Excelsior and without the format for learning that fits so well with my learning style, personality, drive, and I wanted to give back to the school.”
And give back she has. In addition to work to create the CPNE site, she is a member of the adjunct faculty and serves as a member of Excelsior’s Alumni Leadership Council, where she helps guide and represent the interests of the College’s more than 160,000 graduates. In her role as a council member, she proposed that Excelsior create a CPNE testing center at her home hospital.
“She [Gentry] has a passion for Excelsior’s program,” says Kim Hedley, assistant dean of Excelsior’s associate degree in nursing program. Gentry’s support is mission-affirming, Hedley attests, noting it helps Excelsior meet students where they are — academically and geographically. By hosting a CPNE testing site in the southern part of the state, it reduces travel time for many Texas students. More than 11 percent of Excelsior’s associate degree nursing students are in the Lone Star State, the second largest concentration after New York.
Once the seed of the idea was planted, it grew slowly as it took nearly a year to set up the site and complete such details as signing a contract, hiring and training faculty, and securing the necessary equipment. The inaugural testing at the new CPNE location was on September 11, 2015, when five students demonstrated their skills. With the CHRISTUS Spohn site now up and running, it joins the more than 10 other CPNE sites across the United States.
In addition to her role on the Alumni Leadership Council, Gentry serves as an advocate for Excelsior’s nursing program as a mentor. The word is out, she says, that she’s an Excelsior alumna and she’s available for anyone who may need help. That even includes her next-door neighbor, Bonnie Harris, an LVN at CHRISTUS Spohn who passed her CPNE in fall 2015.
“We have been neighbors for about two years. I did not pass my CPNE the first time, and she [Gentry] was supportive and encouraging, making me feel like I could pass. I did pass the second time, eight months later, and she was as excited as I was. She has been a nurse manager for Spohn, and has worked her way up to CNO of the two biggest campuses in the Spohn system, while remaining down-to-earth, approachable, and being patient- and nurse-oriented at the same time. She is amazing, and I feel very grateful that she is my neighbor, my boss, and my friend,” says Harris.
One of the things that appealed to Gentry in her Excelsior studies was the relevancy of each degree. “Each time I went back [for another degree] the information was very relevant to what I was doing and it was almost as though Excelsior was acting as my mentor/preceptor into the new role that I had stepped into,” says Gentry. “What I was learning in school, I was applying to day-to-day work and what I was learning on day-to-day work, I was applying in my degree program. You just can’t beat that.”
Now Gentry’s assuming the role of mentor. By helping to set up the CPNE site at her home hospital, her staff benefits as well. She notes that staff are learning more about the validity of the competency-based education model, the facility’s nursing leaders have an opportunity to become Excelsior clinical examiners, and the exposure helps stimulate interest in the hospital’s nurses to further their education.
Harris supports this notion, saying, “Earning my associate degree has meant the world to me. I have practiced as an LVN for 11 years in various settings: hospitals, outpatient surgery, doctors’ offices, hospice, nursing homes … you name it. I would feel frustrated at times when something needed to be done that I had the knowledge to do, but not the credentials. … [Now] I feel that I have so much more to offer the nursing profession, and that I can go far in my career.”
Gentry is not only a staunch advocate for Excelsior’s nursing program, but also for the profession of nursing. She’s a member of the Texas Nurses Association and president of her local district. “I have a lot of passion for what I do and I feel a strong social responsibility to use my knowledge and skills to impact health care and the work environment for nurses for the better anytime that I can,” she says. Gentry seeks to be politically active in the health care arena, bringing her knowledge and skills to bear on health care and nursing issues. She notes, “We need more nurses involved and engaged in that process.”
Her commitment to Excelsior and the nursing field are elements that have helped Gentry prepare for a successful career. As she lays the path for future successful Excelsior students, she offers some words of advice as they anticipate taking the CPNE. She says, “They [Excelsior] have set up a very good program and they provide all the tools that you need to be successful, so use those tools, prepare, know your critical elements, and then when you get there, just breathe, and … try to let some of the stress go so you can think through what you’re doing and the why, and you’ll be fine.”
This article was written by Dana Yanulavich and was originally in the Spring 2016 edition of the Excelsior College Magazine.