One of Kevin Laudner’s priorities as the new dean of the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UCCS is to honor the school’s long tradition of providing health care practitioners to the community.

The school dates to 1904, when it was founded to train nurses who ministered to patients with tuberculosis. In 1996, the Beth-El College of Nursing merged with UCCS and now educates health care professionals in a variety of fields from nursing to exercise science.

Laudner, who joined the school’s administration in July, oversees more than 20 undergraduate and graduate programs.

Laudner grew up in San Diego, Calif., and completed his undergraduate work at California State University, Northridge. He earned a master’s degree in health science teacher education  at Northeastern State University, Tahlequah, Okla., then worked in several sports medicine clinics.

Ultimately, he was employed by the University of Chicago to rehabilitate injured athletes.

“They asked me to teach a class, which I did and loved,” he said. “I realized I liked teaching and research and thought maybe I should go into academics.”

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Laudner went back to school, earned a Ph.D. in sports medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, then took a job as an assistant professor at Illinois State University.

In 15 years at Illinois State, he worked his way up to full professor and later became interim dean of the College of Education.

“It was a great experience,” he said, but “I realized I really wanted to be in a college of health care. … That’s when I looked at UCCS, and I liked their model.”

Laudner spoke with the Business Journal about the school’s health care programs and how they fulfill the area’s growing need for health care professionals.

Give us an overview of the programs at Beth-El and what’s new this year.

We have about 20 different majors and emphases, and then certificates. Just this past July, we added a brand new department — human physiology and nutrition. It brings in a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees, [including] several exercise science degrees at the bachelor of science level and a master’s degree in strength and conditioning. We have an undergraduate [degree in] nutrition and a master’s in sports nutrition. And then over in health sciences, we have several bachelor of science degrees in health science. We’ve got a fairly new master’s degree in athletic training … not to be confused with personal training.

And then, of course, our nursing programs. Some of our big programs are the traditional bachelor of science in nursing. We’ve got two different versions of that: the traditional, where students come in as freshmen; and the accelerated program, which is for somebody who already has a bachelor’s degree in another area. And then we also have these tracks where they go from the RN to the BSN online, and then we have the nurse practitioner programs and the doctorate of nurse practitioner.

How many students do you have?

It’s hard to say. We won’t know our student numbers until after the first couple weeks of classes, when we know people are done shifting around. This year it’s especially confusing, because we’ve got a brand new department — human physiology and nutrition — that used to be a part of biology. So we took those students, and we don’t know exactly how many of them are going to come. … But it’ll be a large number of students; those areas of study and related fields are extremely popular. We’ll have to be very mindful of how many we accept.

What is your goal for the number of people who graduate per year?

I don’t know if we have an absolute number of how many we want to graduate. It all depends on what the market will allow. These majors are so popular, we could accept a ton, but it does no good if we’re graduating students and there’s not a job waiting for them at the other end. And we don’t want to accept so many students that we have really large classes and labs. What we want is to see our graduation rate at 100 percent. So that’s really what we’re focusing on right now — getting the most qualified students and making sure that we keep them in our programs.

How do your programs differ from those of other colleges?

They’re the same degrees, but in terms of education and clinical experience, to my knowledge, our nurses far exceed what is required. That is one of the reasons why our students are so well prepared, why our program is in such demand, because they get so much hands-on experience. I was talking to a student and she said she was looking at some other universities, and it was easier to get into their programs. It was easier to graduate in terms of number of hours required for their clinical rotations. But she wanted to come here because of the rigor and because of the history, and that sense of, ‘When I graduate from UCCS, I can pick my job.’ We have such a long history, employers know what they’re going to get with our graduates. …

The other thing is our partnerships, our clinical rotations. We have so many of them, so there are opportunities for our students to do their clinical assignments at so many different locations, with many different types of patients and doctors, therapists and technicians. It’s a very unique experience, because there’s such a wide breadth of education that you just don’t get in other programs.

We know that RNs are the No. 1 most in-demand jobs in this area, and some of the other types of health professionals are almost as much in demand. How is the School of Nursing focusing on filling those jobs?

Well, one, we’re trying to make education more accessible — especially, for example, like the RN-to-BSN degree. Those are working registered nurses; they can’t always physically come to campus, and they don’t always have a lot of time. So we’re doing more online to reach more of those students.

We are creating more partnerships with our clinical rotations. I see this all the time, and I’m still amazed by it, but when they do their internships or their clinical rotations, so many of those, before they even finish, they’ve got a job waiting for them at that location. So it’s a great feeder to do their rotations right into working in that setting in the community. We’re trying to create more of those partnerships.

On the other end of that, we are starting to create pipelines. For example, we’ve got a relationship with UCHealth, where they encourage their registered nurses to come take our RN-to-BSN program, because they want them to have that higher level of education. So when they graduate, now they’ve got advanced education, and you see health benefits from it, we benefit from it, the whole community does. So we’re trying to create more of those partnerships.

What role does the Lane Center for Academic Health Sciences play in educating your students, and how will you use the Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center when it comes online?

Our students funnel through the Lane Center all the time, and it’s not just nursing, although nursing is a big part of it. Our nutrition students also go through there, and some of our exercise science, I envision going through there as well. … And then the Hybl Center, that’s going to hit everything else. All of human physiology and nutrition is going to be housed there. The athletic training program, which is in health sciences right now, is going to go over there. There’s going to be opportunities for nursing, because there’s going to be a whole staff of orthopedic surgeons. So there may be opportunities for more orthopedic-related rotations, which we haven’t had before. There’s going to be biomechanics, physical therapists, occupational therapists — it’s really going to be a one-stop shop for anything that involves sports and sports care and even beyond sports care. … We refer to people that work professionally doing manual labor as athletes as well. So people that are working on the line in factories, firemen, policemen, we consider those athletes because they’re physically demanding jobs.

So we’re going to have a center over there that caters to them, as well as individuals with disabilities. It’s going to be a big draw for students, and it’s really going to prepare them for when they go out into the working world.

The Beth-El College of Nursing has been around for a long time. How do you plan to continue its legacy?

There’s a reason why we’re so well known and why people want our graduates. So in my mind, I want to keep the traditions of the rigor of the program, and the clinical hours, and what people have grown to expect from our graduates, and continue to develop them. We do need to increase our student enrollment to meet the demands of Colorado Springs and beyond, so we’re working with our faculty and our leadership team to advance our degrees while still maintaining everything that makes us Beth-El now. So it’s a balance. …

We want to be the No. 1 educator for nurses and allied health care providers in Colorado Springs. And to do that, we need to continue to be innovative in our practice.

As a state-run institution, we have a duty to give back to the community and to meet those needs, not only in nursing, but in registered dietitians, occupational therapists or X-ray technicians. Whatever it is, we want to help meet those needs.