When Sharon Diaz took a position as a faculty member with Samuel Merritt University (SMU), formerly known as Samuel Merritt College, in Oakland, Calif., in 1973, the school was graduating strong candidates for nursing positions throughout Northern California. However, what was once a labor shortage that offered a promising career turned into an oversaturated labor pool in the ’80s, which led to a steep decline in enrollment numbers.

Instead of looking at this trend as a cause for panic, Diaz led the administration on a mission to revamp the curriculum offered by SMU. “When enrollment plummeted, it turned out to be our salvation,” Diaz says. “We quickly learned that you don’t want to hold one stock in the stock market. Therefore, we decided that if we were going to be serious about this, we needed to look toward diversification.”

Today, SMU is a fully accredited health sciences university that offers degrees not only in nursing, but also occupational therapy, physical therapy, physician assistant and podiatric medicine to more than 1,400 students at campuses in Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Mateo, Calif. 

Founded in 1909, the university remains one of the largest sources of new registered nurses in California, according to SMU. It also is the largest provider of physical and occupational therapists, physician assistants and podiatrists in the greater East Bay region. 

Accessibility and Affordability

Diaz says the university strives to create a diverse work force to better represent the patients receiving care in the healthcare system, and that requires recruiting a diverse student body.

“Our country is becoming more diverse, so the population deserves to have a healthcare work force that looks more like the population does,” she says. “It makes a difference to have someone that understands you in a more fundamental way. 

“You can’t guarantee that all of the time, but you can be better at it than we are now.” 

One way to increase the diversity of the student body is by keeping costs in check to maintain a reasonable price for tuition. SMU also has increased its commitment to financial aid for students who need the help. 

“We are so blessed to be in a diverse environment, we are really engaged in this community,” Diaz says. “Many of our faculty and students not only live in this community but do a lot of community service here. This is a big part of who we are.”

The university also continues to explore the addition of new academic programs as labor shortages develop in certain fields. For instance, SMU is looking into the requirements for a pharmacist program, which Diaz optimistically hopes can be launched by 2014. 

“There are a number of people trying it, and we happen to think we’re very well equipped to do it,” she says. “It fits beautifully with all our other programs, and it addresses a great need.”

However, launching academic programs is not as simple as it once was, according to Diaz. These days, it takes longer to raise the capital required for such a launch, and with philanthropic donations decreasing throughout the recession, institutions such as SMU must find financial resources internally more often than in the past.

“We’re not even at the point of submitting the accreditation paperwork for this program,” Diaz says. “It has taken us longer to meet the capital requirements, which are high. We needed to figure out how to fund it internally, and we’ve been at it for a few years.”

In the meantime, SMU is working on other growth avenues on a smaller scale. The university’s existing programs are mostly filled to capacity, so Diaz intends to maintain and strengthen their quality. 

“For us, it’s always about how we shape our classes,” Diaz says. “When you strengthen quality, you provide richer educational opportunities for students and increase the kind of experiences that students have.”

One way SMU has accomplished this is through its Health Sciences Simulation Center. The center offers simulated real-life scenarios that students across all disciplines will encounter in their careers. In this high-tech environment, students are able to practice on mannequins that respond like a real patient. 

“I’ve been around clinical education for a good, long time, and I have never seen anything like it,” Diaz says. “What we can do in that environment is something we cannot do at any other place. It’s like a flight simulator, only it’s with a patient in a life-death situation.

“In simulation, you get to do it in real live time, so you feel it in your bones,” she adds. “Then, there is a whole group watching it on a TV, so whatever the scenario, the students are debriefed by a board-certified emergency physician or another faculty member after a the simulation is finished.”

Diaz also says SMU has been affiliated with Sutter Health for the last 12 years and has been affiliated with healthcare institutions since its inception. These longstanding affiliations have contributed to the university’s attention to the healthcare market, clinical outcomes of its graduates, and attention to its financial performance, she says.

Staying on Top

To remain the best, you have to hire the best. That mantra hasn’t been lost on Diaz, who several years ago realized SMU had to increase faculty salaries significantly to compete with clinical organizations and keep their most talented personnel. 

That is just another example of initiatives launched at SMU to keep up with trends in the healthcare industry. As Diaz puts it, staying still in a field that is constantly evolving is an easy way to become irrelevant.

“We will keep in touch with what’s going on and be ever-moving to keep pace with it,” she says. “We have to stay nimble here.”

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