Going back to school while raising kids and working full time is not an easy juggling act. But once Jimmy Lopez set a goal to advance his nursing career with help from Lorain County Community College, nothing was going to stop him from achieving success.
Returning to school after more than a decade, LCCC’s people and resources helped Lopez strike a balance as he earned his licensed practical nursing (LPN) and registered nursing (RN) degrees. Now the Lorain native has his sights set on another degree as he continues to move up in the medical field.
“LCCC has all the resources you need to get to the next level,” says Lopez, 39. “It doesn’t matter where you come from — LCCC can be the beginning of a positive future.”
Finding his calling
When Lopez graduated from Lorain Admiral King High School in 1997, he had no set career path. He tried working in factories and call centers, but didn’t see a future in either one.
“Sitting at a desk all day just wasn’t me,” he says. “I had two kids at the time, and I knew I needed to advance my career to provide for them. I needed to make decent money. I needed job security. I wasn’t getting that from working dead-end jobs, but I heard there was room for advancement in the medical field.”
The Department of Labor projects about 440,000 new positions for nurses by 2024, with another 700,000 jobs opening as nurses retire. Once Lopez realized this demand, he saw an opportunity and began working as a State Tested Nursing Assistant. He worked in various nursing homes and long-term care facilities as an STNA for more than 10 years.
Then in 2013, Lopez started working the night shift at Mercy Hospital in Lorain. That’s when he decided to add another rung to his career ladder and return to school.
“At the time, I was living in Lorain and working full time, so I needed somewhere that was really close,” he says. “I chose LCCC because of its convenient location and affordable cost.”
Initially, Lopez wanted to pursue his associate degree in nursing to become a registered nurse. But scheduling classes around his full workload and busy family life was a challenge, so LCCC’s advisers suggested that he take it one step at a time, starting with a one-year certificate to become a licensed practical nurse.
Partnering with LCCC to advance careers
Lopez graduated from LCCC’s LPN program in 2014 and, at that point, like a lot of his LPN colleagues at Mercy, Lopez was ready to become an RN.
Mercy was moving toward an RN-based staff matrix, says Angel Rivas, a nurse recruiter who joined the organization in 2015. Instead of eliminating LPN positions, the hospital wanted to help LPNs advance their degrees. So, Mercy’s President and CEO Ed Oley met with all the LPNs to determine how he could help.
“What he heard from the LPN staff was that a lot of them wanted to continue their education, but they were having issues finding the time and funding for it,” Rivas says. “So he put together a program that would allow our current LPNs to transition to RNs by having Mercy cover the cost.”
The hospital approached LCCC for help training its staff and found the college already had a program in place to bridge the gap between the two certificates, through its advanced placement in nursing (LPN to RN) associate degree.
“We took an existing program and tailored it to Mercy,” says Eddie Henson, an academic adviser on the health and wellness team at LCCC. “Our role was making sure that their employees were meeting the hospital’s needs and expectations, and making sure the students stayed on track so they’d be successful.”
Serendipitously, Lopez had just finished his final prerequisites for the associate nursing degree when Mercy finalized the partnership with LCCC in 2015.
“I was going back anyway, because I wanted to prove — not only to myself, but to everyone else — that I was going to get my RN degree,” he says. “So that program was a wonderful opportunity, because I didn’t have to take out any more loans.”
Committed to success
Even with his employer covering the cost of the two-year program, Lopez — who now has five children, ages newborn to 18 — had to work through other challenges to pursue his RN degree while balancing work and home life.
Last summer, he emailed one of his professors with concerns about fitting his senior project hours into his busy fall work schedule. She responded with opportunities for him to fulfill his hours requirement during the summer instead, helping him get ahead for his final semester.
Other instructors stayed after class to work with Lopez and answered his calls after hours. Online classes were also a huge help to work around his night shifts at Mercy.
“LCCC worked with me a lot,” he says. “I really want to commend them, because they all worked with me to figure out my scheduling. If they see that you’re putting in the work and giving 110 percent, they’re always willing to help.”
At both work and school, his commitment to success was obvious to his managers and instructors.
“Jimmy strives to be successful at everything he does,” Henson says. “He takes advantage of the services LCCC makes available to help students by spending additional time with faculty. He’s a big-hearted, happy-go-lucky guy who always has a smile on his face.”
His “infectious personality,” as Henson describes it, makes Lopez a great fit for the nursing field.
“This is a service-based industry, and you can’t teach a person how to smile or have a good bedside manner,” Rivas says. “When I’m calling job candidates, I can see that they have their RN license, but I’m trying to find out, when we put them in front of patients, if they’re going to give them the best experience possible.”
Because LCCC’s nursing program pairs a strenuous curriculum with foundational skills like professionalism and customer service, Rivas says the college’s graduates excel in the field.
“When you see LCCC graduates in the halls of the hospital, they carry themselves better than some of their competitors,” Rivas says. “They look like they’ve already worked in a hospital.”
Just before he graduated, LCCC surprised Lopez with the school’s first Florence Nightingale Student Nurse Award for Nursing Excellence.
“It was the pinnacle of my academic career,” says Lopez. “To be the first recipient was a testament to all the hard work I put in and everything I’ve been through. I’m very grateful for the recognition, and I’ll always hold that award in high regard.”
After receiving the award and graduating from the RN program in December 2017, he accepted a position in the telemetry observation unit at a regional hospital and started his new job last April. But his education won’t stop here. The Florence Nightingale award came with a $500 scholarship, which Lopez plans to use to pursue his bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree from Ohio University through LCCC’s University Partnership, before earning a master of science degree in nursing, and, eventually, a doctorate degree. He wants to teach — his way of giving back some of what LCCC has given to him.
“I’ve been blessed. I’m grateful for every opportunity that has been presented to me,” Lopez says. “LCCC is a great institution with good programs and people in place, and I’m so thankful I took advantage of them.”