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More than a quarter century after its founding at Chadron State College, the Rural Health Opportunities Program (RHOP) continues to bring quality students and meet its goal of increasing the supply of health care professionals in rural areas of Nebraska.

Started at CSC in 1989 through a collaboration with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, RHOP provides renewable scholarships for a limited number of qualified students from rural Nebraska to pursue studies in one of nine health care fields. RHOP also guarantees the students admittance at UNMC to pursue the advanced degree needed for their profession, provided they successfully complete their undergraduate work and meet entrance examination requirements.

RHOP grew out of a recognition that rural Nebraska faced a shortage of health care professionals, and frustration that other efforts, such as loan forgiveness, were not generating service providers with long-term commitments to a rural practice, said Kristal Kuhnel, Director of Health Professions at CSC.

UNMC staff and former CSC biology professor Dr. Jay Druecker had the idea that students recruited from rural Nebraska would be more likely to return to and remain in a rural area to build their career, Kuhnel said.

Druecker’s prior connections with UNMC, where he had taken classes while on sabbatical from his CSC position in the late 1970s, were important in making Chadron State the first participant in the program, according to a story about his retirement in 2003.

At the time, CSC was already known for producing quality students in health profession studies, said Dr. Joyce Hardy, CSC physical and life sciences professor and member of the Health Professions Advisory Board.

“The quality of the graduates, the rigor of the program and the rural nature of our students were all factors leading to CSC becoming the initial partner for this creative program,” said Hardy, who joined the faculty in 1991, the year that RHOP was expanded to Wayne State College. RHOP is now offered at Peru State College, and the University of Nebraska-Kearney, as well.

Initially, only students in pre-medicine were included in RHOP, but the program has grown to include eight other fields: Nursing, dental hygiene, dentistry, physician assistant, physical therapy, pharmacy, radiography, and medical lab science. Each field has a specific number of open seats, specific course requirements, and includes pre-admittance to the appropriate UNMC program for the specialty.

An average of 55 to 58 CSC students are RHOP participants each year, Kuhnel said.

“We recruit the best and brightest seniors in high school,” she said.

Students who apply go through a selection process that includes review of academic records, test scores and letters of recommendation and an on-campus interview. CSC biology and chemistry faculty help conduct the interviews as part of their duties on the Health Professions Advisory Board.

Applicants are judged on a variety of characteristics beyond academic ability, Hardy noted.

“We look at their personal commitment to the profession and to practicing in rural Nebraska,” she said. “We also look at personality, a service attitude and intellectual curiosity.”

RHOP students are monitored to make sure they meet program requirements that include academic performance, professional development, volunteerism and behavioral expectations, Hardy said. They also have close contact with faculty advisors, assistance in arranging required job shadowing experiences, and trips to the various UNMC campuses in Nebraska.

Lisa Moravec, who completed the RHOP dental hygiene courses at CSC in 2000, and the UNMC program in 2002, said the extra attention was valuable.

“Being part of RHOP helped me stay focused on my studies and ensured I was enrolled in the right courses to complete my education in a timely manner,” Moravec said.

One mark of RHOP’s effectiveness, and of the high standards of CSC’s health professions courses, is the success participants achieve in their further schooling, according to Kuhnel.

“UNMC tells us that our students are highly successful across all nine programs,” Kuhnel said. “And this is up against a global audience.”

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Jens Johnson, a recent RHOP graduate who is now completing a family medicine residency in Vermont, verified that assessment. Initially, Johnson was a bit intimidated by other students from prestigious schools in his UNMC classes.

“However, once it came to academic testing and clinical skills, I found that I could hold my own because of the great preparation I had at CSC,” he said.

Evaluations of RHOP show that the program is also meeting its goal of getting qualified health care professionals to practice in rural settings. An analysis completed about 10 years ago showed some 85 percent of CSC RHOP graduates were practicing in rural areas of Nebraska and neighboring states, far more than other non-RHOP graduates from UNMC, said Hardy.

“We are approaching 350 professionals that have returned to Nebraska to practice that have gone through CSC RHOP,” Kuhnel said about data from the most recent survey by UNMC.

Moravec, who is now the West Division Dental Hygiene coordinator for the UNMC College of Dentistry, has seen RHOP work firsthand

“The majority of these students are still working in rural Nebraska,” she said. “I think the mission of RHOP is being fulfilled with each graduating class of students from UNMC.”

Besides its success at bringing better access to health care in rural areas, RHOP has had many benefits for CSC, said Hardy. Chadron State’s reputation as a pathway to a medical profession career has been solidified by the program’s prestige, she said. And the close collaboration with UNMC has helped the college refine its courses to meet state-of-the-art career preparation requirements, which also benefits the traditional, non-RHOP students at CSC who are preparing for professional schools and careers.

“Chadron State has long produced high quality health care professionals,” Hardy said. “The faculty are committed to continuing this long standing tradition through a supportive yet demanding program of study. The faculty are committed to our students’ successes.”

That commitment shows, said Johnson, who thanked his CSC professors for their work. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without a large number of great teachers and excellent role models that pushed me to succeed,” he said. “You’re the reason the program is so great and none of this would be possible without you.”

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