Photo caption: Blugolds earning degrees in health care administration must complete a yearlong administrative residency before they graduate. While the requirement has been in place for years, it’s now being called an administrative residency. That language better reflects the experience students have during their residencies in long-term senior care facilities.
Like many spring 2021 college graduates, Drew Flores and Emily Weise are learning to think creatively, adapt quickly and embrace the unexpected as they try to make the most of a year that has been like no other.
However, while the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire seniors are navigating mask mandates, physical distancing requirements and virtual learning like all students, they also are part of leadership teams in long-term care facilities during a public health crisis that is hitting the senior population especially hard.
Weise and Flores are among the 54 Blugolds who are completing yearlong administrative residencies at long-term care facilities before graduating in May with degrees in health care administration.
“There is only so much you can learn in a classroom,” says Flores, who is completing his residency at Marquardt Village in Watertown. “I learn and do something new every day. I wake up every morning not knowing what today will bring, which makes coming into work exciting.”
Weise agrees, adding that the residency program, while challenging, is giving her the kinds of experiences that will help her succeed in her future career.
“You spend a whole year at a facility,” says Weise, who is completing her residency at Saint Therese at Oxbow Lake in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. “It is not just learning with a textbook and taking tests. You get the real-world experience, which actually gets you prepared for the real world.”
With millions of baby boomers now crossing the “senior” threshold, the demand for leaders in the long-term care and senior-living industry is booming, making it even more important that new graduates bring experience with them as they begin their careers, says Kiki Beschorner, the coordinator for UW-Eau Claire’s Center for Health Administration and Aging Services Excellence (CHAASE). That is why requiring students to complete yearlong residencies in long-term care facilities is a critical part of the health care administration program, she says.
“After completing the 50-week program, our students are ready to begin performing as a leader and a manager in a health care setting,” Beschorner says.
UW-Eau Claire has one of the largest and best-known health care administration programs of its kind in the U.S., enrolling about 215 students and graduating about 60 students each year.
Its requirement that students spend 12 months working in the field before they graduate is among the reasons the program is so highly regarded by industry leaders across the country, and why new graduates are in demand, Beschorner says. Last year, 59 of the 60 May health care administration graduates found jobs within six months, she says.
While UW-Eau Claire has long required health care administration majors to spend 50 weeks in care facilities, naming the experience an “administrative residency” is new, says Lindsey Creapeau, who helps coordinate the residency program for CHAASE. The field experience previously was called a practicum.
“The new language helps people better understand what happens during this last year of the health care administration program,” Creapeau says. “The term ‘administrative residency’ emphasizes the quality of the health care and leadership learning experiences we provide students in our program.”
Talia Pletcher, who earned her health care administration degree from UW-Eau Claire in 2010, is the administrator of The Estates at St. Louis Park, which serves as a residency site. She says the new language better reflects the students’ experiences working at the long-term care facilities.
“It better defines what we do as administrative leaders and the depth of our commitment to developing the students,” Pletcher says. “The stipend-supported opportunity to experience the day-to-day operations of a senior care organization for a year is a signature of UW-Eau Claire’s health care administration program.”
Sondra Norder, a 2001 UW-Eau Claire graduate and CEO of St. Paul Elder Services, agrees.
“Students literally walk in the shoes of the daily work of an administrator, an immersion experience that sets them up for success with opportunities to progress in expanding management roles and responsibilities,” says Norder, whose organization has been a preceptor for multiple Blugolds.
Rebranding the practicum as an administrative residency better represents the program’s commitment to fully developing students’ competencies before they graduate, says Norder, a member of the CHAASE board, which she says is excited about the new administrative residency language.
The administrative residency requirement is among the reasons UW-Eau Claire is a national leader in health care administration education, says Randy Lindner, CEO of the National Association of Long Term Care Administrator Boards.
“The decision to move forward and describe the paid field experience as an administrative residency is another example of that leadership,” Lindner says.
The residencies help students build their skills in communication, teamwork, leadership, troubleshooting, relationship-building, good judgment and problem-solving — all areas that are greatly valued by employers, Beschorner says. They also build connections with leaders at their residency sites, connections that often lead to job offers, she says.
Their residencies are especially valuable this year, as students work alongside health care leaders to manage long-term care facilities during the ongoing pandemic, Beschorner says. Blugolds currently are completing residencies in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado and Indiana, she says.
“The students who did their administrative residencies during the COVID-19 pandemic have had experiences like no others,” Beschorner says. “They will be more than ready to face any challenges that come their way in the future.”
Gaining valuable experience
Thanks to his residency, Flores is more excited than ever about pursuing a career in health care administration.
“Every day brings something new to the table,” says Flores, a native of Appleton. “It is a very fast-paced job that keeps you on your toes. But when it comes down to it, walking around the building and seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter of your staff and residents is what keeps me coming back every day. It is a career path that is extremely rewarding and allows you to help hundreds of people.”
As part of their residencies, the Blugolds complete weeklong rotations in every area of their facility. The 21 rotations are an important part of the residency experience, Weise says.
“The rotations are from laundry to maintenance to nursing and the billing office,” Weise says. “The experiences on every rotation help prepare you to learn the ins and outs of the departments you manage as an administrator. It is like you are walking a mile in their shoes for a week.”
The rotations also create some unexpected — though memorable — moments, Weise says.
“In my maintenance rotation, I ended up putting our campus fountain in our pond by canoeing out to the middle of the pond with a paddle,” Weise says. “I would never think I would be doing something like that on my residency, but it was fun to be a part of it.”
Spending time in each area of the organization allowed him to build personal relationships with the staff and the residents, helping him feel connected to and part of the community, Flores says.
“Now, walking around, I have stories and relationships with the staff and residents that I can talk with them about and laugh,” Flores says.
With his rotations completed, Flores now operates as an assistant administrator to his mentor.
“I tend to the daily operations of the facility, run meetings, audit for regulatory compliance, put together financial reports and institute quality improvement initiatives,” Flores says. “Every day is different and offers me a new learning experience.”
While the pandemic has made some aspects of the residency more challenging, Weise says she is making the most of the opportunity.
She currently oversees all visitors to the facility, from training to managing appointments, and soon will lead three projects that will help her organization, Weise says. She also assists the facility’s administrator, which is helping her understand the many responsibilities that come with that position.
“I’m gaining skills that I will need when I step into a role after graduation,” Weiss says. “But the best parts are the moments that remind me why I am doing what I do, like when I have a resident thank me or a smile I get when I do something for them. Knowing I am making a difference in people’s lives is the best part of this.”
A passion for health care administration
Flores grew up in a family with many ties to the health care field, which inspired him to consider following a similar career path.
“Growing up, watching their success and job fulfillment moved me toward the health care field,” says Flores, whose sister earned a nursing degree at UW-Eau Claire. “I quickly learned that providing direct care wasn’t something I desired, so I explored other career paths. I shadowed several administrators my senior year of high school and I knew that health care administration was something I could see myself doing in the future. I came to UW-Eau Claire pre-declared and I have loved it ever since.”
Weise, who grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, attended community college there before transferring to UW-Eau Claire. She still was not sure what she wanted to study when she arrived on campus. A brochure about health care administration caught her eye so she enrolled in an introduction to health care administration course. She knew immediately she’d found her major.
“At the time, I was interested in nursing, but I knew it was not 100% for me,” says Weise, who also has a minor in gerontology. “Half of me was interested in business. So, I was half thinking nursing and half business, and this degree is just that combination. After the first week, I knew it was right for me.”
Flores says his experiences as a Blugold have exceeded his already high expectations.
As a freshman, Flores joined UW-Eau Claire’s chapter of the American College of Health Care Administrators, an organization that helped him connect with other students, faculty and staff, and professionals working in the field.
“It was a great networking opportunity, and promoted professional and personal growth,” Flores says.
Attending the National Emerging Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., was a highlight of his college career, Flores says, noting that he made a connection at the summit that led to his residency placement.
Weise and Flores also found valuable experiences in the Eau Claire community.
“As soon as I knew this is what I wanted to do with my career, I worked as a resident aide at a facility near campus,” Weise says. “I wanted to get to know the environment to make sure it was what I wanted to do, but also to have the real-world experiences that would prepare me for what this environment entails. I took the resident aide job the first week I started my ‘Intro to HCAD’ class.”
Flores also worked at a long-term care facility in Eau Claire, something he thought was important to do before he began his residency.
“I wanted to get entry-level experience before going into my residency,” Flores says. “It gave me a different perspective of what health care is and helps me to sympathize with my staff now.”
Much like the long-term care industry, UW-Eau Claire’s health care administration program is always changing as it finds new ways to improve networking opportunities, in-class sessions and professional development exercises, Flores says.
“It gives you the tools to be successful,” Flores says. “It has challenged me to think more analytically and forced me to get out of my comfort zone to make connections virtually and in person. It is interesting to see how much I have grown from freshman year to now, and I credit much of that to this program.”
As he prepares to graduate, Flores is confident he is ready to begin his career in a leadership position.
“This experience has shaped me into a young prospective administrator, which is exactly what I wanted out of it,” says Flores, who hopes to work as a campus administrator after he graduates. “I have more confidence in myself, my abilities and my future.”
Weise says she hopes to eventually work her way into an administrator role but plans to begin her career in more of a support role so she can continue to build her skills.
“I learn better by having more experiences,” Weise says. “This residency has pushed me to step out of my comfort zone and has made me look into what and where I want my future to go.”