San Diego couple’s gift ramps up SDSU Imperial Valley nursing program

The Brawley program could see enrollment double by 2025 as it strives to meet the rural community’s needs.

Monday, April 22, 2024
Cliff and Carolyn Colwell
Through their gift, Cliff and Carolyn Colwell want to address the critical nursing shortage in Imperial Valley.

Whether it’s nursing or any number of other high-demand occupations in California’s Imperial County, it can be hard to recruit workers to relocate to a remote, predominantly agricultural region where average daily high temperatures reach 99 degrees in early June and stay there well past the beginning of the school year.

Accordingly, “We went to the grow-your-own model,” said Erika Rodriguez, assistant director for SDSU Imperial Valley’s School of Nursing undergraduate program, using a term commonly heard for the talent needed in a lot of professions in the area. 

Now, a remarkable gift from Carolyn and Cliff Colwell of San Diego promises to help the high-demand program accomplish even more toward meeting the region’s needs. Their five-year, $500,000 gift to the nursing program ties the record for the largest cash contribution ever to the Imperial Valley campus and will help address multiple priorities.

The Colwells, both of whom have careers in medicine, said they want to address the critical nursing shortage in the region and its ripple effects on health disparities.

“We love the idea of being able to train nurses to not only take care of patients but to really move the profession forward,” Carolyn Colwell said.

Based in Brawley, 23 miles north of the main campus in Calexico, the nursing program will graduate the first 10 students of an accelerated pre-licensure program created in 2022 to help meet the demand. The accelerated schedule cuts a year off the normal time-to-degree by holding classes over the normally dormant summer months; students in the first cohort will complete their requirements in August.

The Colwells, who met while both studying at the University of Michigan School of Medicine in 1959, established their gift after a visit to Imperial Valley last year led by University Relations and Development and the College of Health and Human Services. 

Carolyn Colwell practiced nursing in Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City, among other locales, as the couple moved around for their respective educations. When they settled in San Diego, she taught at SDSU in San Diego for 28 years beginning in 1971. 

Cliff Colwell was an orthopedic surgeon who has worked in Los Angeles County, at an evacuation hospital for soldiers wounded in Vietnam, and for the San Diego Padres, including at their spring training program in Yuma, Arizona, just east of El Centro. He was the first orthopedic surgeon at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, and continues to run a stem cell lab.

Their Imperial Valley trip was quite impactful.

“We were trying to find where the biggest need is, and how it matches with our background and our knowledge,” said Carolyn Colwell. “We both feel the profession of nursing has a lot to offer in helping with the financial as well as the health care needs of the population.”

“We were really very gratified to hear from the students themselves and from the staff there how much they're doing to further not only the education of nurses but the wealth of and the health of the community,” she said.

Rodriguez said the support “is going to benefit the program immensely.”

“Thanks to the gift we’re able to get more bachelor-prepared nurses to care for their community,” she said. “It makes a dream for a rural community a reality.”

The nationwide nursing shortage “affects us a lot more than a metropolitan area,” especially in acute care hospitals, she said. Additional resources mean additional training, helping SDSU IV achieve its goal of providing “the same level of education as any other university, in the rural setting.”

The program currently enrolls 20 students at a time, a figure that will go to 30 beginning next fall. The California Board Of Registered Nursing has approved an enrollment of 40 and Rodriguez said the university hopes to achieve that level in fall 2025 with support from the Colwell gift. Space on the Brawley campus is tight; the extra funding may allow the university to add courses at an off-campus location.

The program recruits students both fresh out of high school and as transfers from Imperial Valley College, a public, two-year institution. Among the transfers in the current class is Sebastian Martinez, a Calexico resident, who became interested in nursing as a hospital patient himself at age 15. 

“That’s where I got to observe the role of a nurse and various other health-care professions,” Martinez said. Now he’s president of the campus Student Nurses Association, aiming for a career in an emergency department, having completed an internship at El Centro Regional Medical Center.

While more intense, the accelerated degree program suits Martinez just fine. “Just being able to pursue a higher degree here at home is very beneficial,” he said. “We’re going to be able to obtain our licenses a little bit sooner and provide nursing care to the community.”

Lecturer Carmen Bravo, who teaches a pediatric care course in the nursing program, confirms the accelerated approach is working. She has been trying to keep the class challenging, but “they know their stuff,” she said. “They have retained all of the information.”

The five-year gift is unrestricted ― an unusual feature for an amount so high ― meaning SDSU Imperial Valley can use it to meet the needs of the program.

Cliff Colwell said those needs could include scholarships for students who dream of being a nurse in Imperial Valley but need financial assistance along the way. “You never get enough money for scholarships,” he said.

Similarly, Carolyn Colwell is a big believer in the grow-your-own model of which Rodriguez spoke, and “the idea of Imperial Valley being a community, and allowing these students to stay there to train and to be able to provide for themselves.” A nursing program that helps them “stay and really be part of a big community, is very appealing to us.”

She sees a need on the teaching side as well.

“We can't help increase the (number of) students if we don't have good faculty to be there to teach them,” she said.

Check out what’s happening at SDSU Imperial Valley.

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