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College bridges nursing transition

August 08, 2011

Richmond College prepares foreign nurses for Canadian workforce

By Yvonne Robertson, Special to the News August 26, 2011

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Aki Tanaka realized that she couldn’t do it alone. She had spent three years nursing in Japan and wanted to continue her career in Canada. “It was too difficult [alone],” said Tanaka. “I needed more support.” “I was also homesick, I missed my family and friends, Japanese food,” said the 31-year-old, who now looks confident with a pink flower in her long black hair. Tanaka came to Canada three years ago and fell in love with B.C.’s laid back culture. She’s seen many of her friends go back home to Japan, but Tanaka stayed put. “Nursing is my passion,” she said. “There are good opportunities here.” After spending three years studying English and nursing on her own, she decided to enroll in the Richmond-based OMNI College last October to get the peer support and formal training to help her join the workforce. Ron Burke founded OMNI College in 1998 to help nurses like Tanaka transition into the Canadian nursing workforce, which has become all the more important according to a recent study published by Statistics Canada earlier this month. The study anticipates that the percentage of the population aged 15 and over in the workforce will decline in coming years – from 67 per cent in 2010 to between 59.7 and 62.6 per cent in 2031. The drop is partly attributable to the retiring baby boomers. At the same time, the percentage of foreign-born people in the workforce is anticipated to increase to 33 per cent from 21.2 per cent in 2006. Burke says that within a year there will be a shortage of Canadian-born nurses. “We’re anticipating screaming shortages in nursing within the next year,” said Burke. “When the economy dropped, older nurses stayed in the workforce longer, which caused more nurses over the retiring age to keep working. But now that it’s starting to pick up, all these nurses can retire any moment.” Burke began his nursing career in the 1960s before taking up the business side of health care at We Care Home Health Services. After working with various nurses and health care professionals, Burke recognized the need for a school like OMNI. “Historically, B.C. has never graduated enough nurses,” said Burke. “Normally about 1,000 retire and 650-750 graduate a year. So we rely on international nurses to make up the rest.” His college is built around training these 250-350 international nurses in the ways of the Canadian nursing system. His school provides the students with a roadmap and a sense of direction. “Many of the students have a dream to practice nursing in Canada,” said Burke. “We help make this dream a reality.” The school also tries to foster a sense of community between these students, referring to an “OMNI family.” “It’s not a big college,” said Tanaka of the 30-40 students that enter each year. “So it’s easy to make friends. We do a lot together like the Sun Run or going out.” “A nurse is a nurse is a nurse,” said Burke emphatically. “We share bonds that cross cultures. You have so many shared experiences, it becomes like a fraternity.” Part of these strong friendships stem from mutual hardships ranging from homesickness to marital problems. “It’s very difficult for spouses to make the adjustment,” said Burke. “In some cases if the wife is going through the program, she’s away a lot and becomes more confident in her abilities. This can be seen as challenging or threatening to their husbands in some cultures.” But students soldier through with the support of their peers – dropping out of OMNI is a rare occurrence. “Their passion keeps them, their love for nursing,” said Burke. “They have a respect for the profession and in Canada it pays well.” One of the greatest challenges new students often face is learning a new language while studying. OMNI enforces a strict English-only policy in order for students to immerse themselves in the language. “The language barrier was the biggest challenge,” said Tanaka. “I found it hard to keep speaking English all the time.” The school’s program director Louise Levinson understands what it’s like to study in a new language. Levinson comes to Richmond via South Africa. When studying nursing in her home country, she chose to do it in Afrikaans. “It was tough,” said Levinson, who came to Canada 18 years ago after her husband changed jobs. “I think I probably cried every night for those first six months.” “But it really helped me gain a better understanding of ESL students. Also when they complain about it, I can say, ‘I’ve done it, now you have to do it.’” She laughs. Becoming an OMNI student begins with an inquiry about the school. Students generally find out about the school through the Internet or referrals. From there, Burke interviews them either by phone or traveling to their home country for a face-to-face interview. Burke outlines all the regulatory bodies that govern the nursing and school sectors, immigration and human resources skills development, and the other bureaucratic hoops to jump through. “It’s like a giant Snakes and Ladders game,” said Burke with a smile. “If you miss a step or make a wrong move, you have to start all over again.” He moves his hands in the air to show an imaginary Snakes and Ladders player falling back to the bottom of the board. Burke dons his employer’s hat during the interviews to make sure he doesn’t accept or “hire” an applicant he doesn’t think will be employable after a year at OMNI. He emphasizes that the college is a review program for experienced nurses to consolidate their knowledge in a Canadian context. If applicants don’t have the right amount of experience, for example, Burke will tell them what to improve. “I probably accept about one out of every four,” said Burke. “I need to be sure that these students will have a place to work after, so they don’t uproot their lives and end up unemployed.” Once admitted, students receive seven months of class instruction, one month of test preparation for an assessment exam and the Canadian Registered Nurse Examination and four months of work experience. Graduates frequent the college dropping by for visits and classroom talks, while also networking with current students. “Recently one student returned and talked about how grateful she was for the program,” said Burke, whose eyes filled with tears as he remembers all the students who pass through the doors of OMNI. “Nursing defines a person. Often when new students come in, they feel that identity is taken away because they’re in a new place. They lack confidence. But once they leave, they’re ready.” Instructors at the college must work in the field once a month to keep their knowledge current. Burke also receives feedback from employers. As a result, the curriculum undergoes review every eight months. “The school really prepares you for the field,” said Tanaka. “We have labs every week, which are important.” Tanaka is currently preparing for the Canadian Registered Nurse Examination, which she will take in October. After that, the job search begins. “I’m nervous, but also excited,” she says calmly, betraying none of her stress. “I feel like I’m on track now.”

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