May 20, 2020

High School Student Finds Herself on the Frontlines of Care

RINIMC senior Jillian Corbin packs personal protective equipment in her family’s kitchen

RINIMC senior Jillian Corbin packs personal protective equipment in her family’s kitchen before heading to work as a certified nursing assistant providing home care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Jillian Corbin heard about the Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College Charter High School (RINIMC) at the beginning of her freshman year, she promptly filled out the paperwork and transferred. She never dreamed she’d be spending the final semester of her senior year of high school working on the frontlines of a pandemic as a certified nursing assistant (CNA), but that’s where she is today.

RINIMC opened in 2011 with a mission to diversify the nursing work force by making nursing careers more accessible to students from a high-poverty area of Providence, R.I. According to RINIMC Chief Executive Officer Pamela McCue, PhD, RN, the school, where 88 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, also aims to eliminate health care disparities in the community.

One way RINIMC prepares students to study nursing is by offering college-level courses through a partnership with the University of Rhode Island (URI). RINIMC’s model is unique because it also partners with the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) to provide certification opportunities for students and community members to become CNAs or emergency medical technicians (EMTs). These certifications qualify students and other young adults for entry-level health care jobs, simultaneously increasing employment and health care knowledge in the local community.

Corbin has taken advantage of these opportunities. She completed her CNA coursework during her junior year of high school and began working 40 hours per week as a home health aide the next summer. When her senior year started, she reduced her work hours to weekends and after school. She is also completing her EMT certification.

Corbin says the job has kept her out of food service and retail and helps pay for essentials like car insurance. She feels a strong connection to her clients, whom she describes as a second family. “I think about them all week,” says Corbin. “Some clients need minimal help, but others are bedridden or have catheters, amputations, or ostomy bags, so I do a lot of personal care and other little things. Just talking to them can light up their room.”

When asked how her job has changed since the spread of COVID-19, Corbin says, “It’s been scary for the clients. I try to ease them when I can.” She notes that some health care workers have been exposed to the virus or have become infected, so her agency needs a lot more help, making Corbin’s 20 to 30 hours per week essential to the community.

The risk of becoming infected herself is not lost on 18-year old Corbin.

“I thought about not doing it for a day,” she says, “but then I decided it’s worth it because I see how much people need the help of a CNA or a nurse.”

RINIMC Chief Executive Officer Pamela McCue, PhD, RN

RINIMC Chief Executive Officer Pamela McCue, PhD, RN

McCue, who has led RINIMC since its founding, expresses pride in the work of her school and its students. “We set out to diversify nursing and contribute to the Rhode Island health care workforce, and we’re doing it,” says McCue. Corbin is one of many RINIMC students and graduates studying nursing who, thanks to their certifications, are contributing in the current crisis. “They’re out there as CNAs and EMTs. Our graduates are doing the work.”

With funding from a recent grant, RINIMC plans to expand the certification programs in two ways. McCue says, “We’ve added a third certification for patient care technician, which is another high-demand entry-level position.” Although currently on hold due to shutdowns related to COVID-19, McCue explains, the school’s certification programs will also become available to students from other local high schools and to unemployed or underemployed adults in the community. Certification programs previously offered to non-RINIMC students in the summer will be expanded to year-round.

“These certifications are not the end goal,” McCue says, explaining that the end goal is to get participants to see themselves as health care providers. She hopes the field experience will motivate them to stay in health care and acquire more training and earning power. Corbin is a case in point. She has already taken multiple college-level courses through the RINIMC program and plans to attend CCRI in the fall of 2020 before transferring to URI to complete her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Corbin will attend the Community College of Rhode Island in the fall before transferring to the University of Rhode Island to complete her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

“Attending RINI and working as a CNA changed my perspective on a lot of things,” Corbin says. “I used to be very shy. But working in health care, you need to be open and willing to talk to anybody. It’s taught me about empathy and compassion and about how to meet different challenges.” She adds that her work has raised her aspirations. “I want to be a nurse practitioner,” she says, “so being a CNA is just a start for me.”

RINIMC’s success has garnered much attention, and McCue has been approached about replication. She and other school leaders are currently forming a nonprofit to disseminate the model to other communities: “Next stop,” she says, “Albany, N.Y.” In McCue’s estimation, the RINIMC model “speaks to the social determinants of health” because the school is improving the health-related knowledge of the community while also increasing the earning power of individuals who live there. She says, “If we can go into underserved areas where the quality of education isn’t where it should be, then we can change the trajectory for each student’s family.”