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'I can make a difference': Nursing, medical school applications are rising amid the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired some to join

The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired some to join the front lines of health care. Newsday spoke to two students who said the pandemic has strengthened their desire to pursue careers in medicine. Credit: Barry Sloan; Morgan Campbell

Giuliana Palasciano wasn’t sure about her career path when she came home from college last spring to finish out her senior year online. Then she saw the pandemic unfold on television.

"I was watching the news for weeks and was so interested in what the epidemiologists were saying," said Palasciano, 22, a University of North Carolina graduate. "I kind of stumbled into public health."

Now Palasciano, who lives in Commack, is enrolled in SUNY Stony Brook’s Masters of Public Health program, where enrollment is double what it was last year. Applications are up nationally and on Long Island not only in public health programs, but in nursing and medical schools, and programs for paramedics and EMTs.

"Everything that happened with COVID and the immense amount of interest I had in what the public health field was doing at the time, it made me think this was the perfect fit for me," Palasciano said.

Some of the application spikes are unprecedented, and no one can say for sure what factors are behind them. But the coronavirus pandemic is credited with inspiring interest in front-line professions and reaffirming the choice of those already enrolled in such programs.

"I feel like I was made to do this," said Shantel Stewart, 26, of Westbury, a nursing student at Adelphi University and a COVID-19 front-line nursing assistant in a rehabilitation facility.

Applying to medical programs is not done casually. Academic prerequisites take years to complete. The pandemic could have given students more time and incentive to apply this year rather than delay, said Geoffrey Young, a senior director at the Association of American Medical Colleges.

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"The number of students applying to enter medical school in 2021 is up 18% from this time last year. This large of an increase is unprecedented," Young said.

The association will find out why after it surveys incoming students next fall, but he noted possible reasons: more time to prepare applications and study for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), lower application costs as virtual interviews replaced on-campus visits, and inspiration from the "heroic doctors on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Applications up 14% at Stony Brook

On Long Island, Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine received 700 more applications this year than last year, a 14% increase, said its dean, Dr. Ken Kaushansky.

"This is my 11th year and I don’t remember us going up by 14 percent in any year," he said. "More typical is a 3 to 4 percent increase year over year."

Kaushansky said the reasons behind the surge were likely "complex and multifactorial," from the inspiration of the pandemic to a desire for financial security during a time of job loss and unemployment.

Applications to The Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell are up 25% over last year, the medical school said. And they are up 27.4% this month compared to a year ago at the New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, said the school's dean, Dr. Nicole Wadsworth. With a March deadline, almost 10,000 applications are already in for 295 spots at the college's campus in Old Westbury, along with 115 at its campus in Arkansas.

Some nursing programs on Long Island also have seen spikes in enrollment. At Stony Brook, for example, the accelerated one-year program’s applications are up 20%, with an 11% increase to the undergraduate program, nursing dean Annette Wysocki said.

In September, the Hofstra Northwell School of Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies will launch an undergraduate nursing major, and, as of now, more than 1,000 applications had come in "for 36 seats," said the school’s founding dean, Kathleen Gallo. "Those applications will be flowing in until early September."

Adelphi’s 1,600-student undergraduate nursing program has a "robust pool" of applicants every year, said Elaine Smith, dean of Adelphi's College of Nursing and Public Health, adding there's a 2% rise in completed applications.

"We’ve seen a huge uptick in the number of students applying for a second degree in nursing," said Kristen Capezza, Adelphi’s vice president of enrollment management and university communications. "That application count is up 30 percent. Transfers into nursing are up 26 percent, with several hundred applications at this point in time."

Demand up in lesser-known care professions

The pandemic has given exposure to lesser-known health care professions as well. At LIU Post, where nursing degree applications are up nearly 13%, respiratory care, public health and pharmaceutics, for example, saw double- and triple-digit percentage increases.

Applications dropped about 20% overall in the SUNY system for fall 2021 — one of the largest annual decreases in its 73-year history. But Stony Brook’s School of Health Technology and Management said its 10% overall rise in applications maintained growth trends from over the past decade, said dean Stacy Jaffee Gropack,, who noted that the full impact of the pandemic might be yet to come.

"We won’t actually see that significant leap for a couple of years as people complete prerequisites," she said. However, in its emergency medical technician and paramedic programs, which don’t require as many prerequisites, applications soared by 35%, she said.

Stony Brook paramedic student Bridget Kennedy, 23, of Dix Hills, applied last summer after months as a volunteer EMT on ambulances transporting COVID-19 patients.

"These were very, very sick people," she said. "There were multiple shifts I came home and cried. I wanted to keep helping, and the fact that I made it through and was able to keep helping cemented that, OK, this was something I could do."

She added, "For me, it’s about being there for people on the worst day and worst moment of their life. Because I can make a difference."

That impulse to help motivates Shoshanna Alexander, 26, of Mastic, who is studying for a dual master's degree in social work and public health at Stony Brook.

The pandemic, she said, highlighted the disparities in minority access to health care and in COVID-19’s impacts. "As an African American female, it’s scary, but it made me realize that public health could help me push more and advocate more for minorities and to help educate people," she said.

Class in public health largest ever

This school year’s class in public health at Stony Brook is its largest ever, said its director, Lisa Benz Scott. The faculty agreed it was a "moral imperative" to double the class size to 61, up from 29 last year, given the public health emergency, the need to bolster the nation's public health system, and the spotlight on social justice issues and health care inequities, she said.

This year, 13 students are pursuing a dual degree with social work, compared to one last year, and nine have a dual degree with medicine and public health, compared to four last year, she added.

"We had a 20 percent increase in applications consistent with the increase nationally," Benz Scott said. "COVID started in February and March, and the words public health appeared on every TV news show and radio across the globe."

Most nursing graduates in hospitals can now expect to care for COVID-19 or COVID-19-suspected patients, Adelphi's Smith said. "They can’t wait. It’s about commitment and you become recommitted to your decision. ‘I always wanted to be a nurse and now, boy, I really want to be a nurse now.’ They double down on it."

Nursing student Ashley Romeo, 22, of Nesconset, applied to Stony Brook’s two-year nursing program in late 2019, with some reservations. The pandemic dissolved them.

"I think it almost strengthened my decision to be a nurse," she said. "I saw how big an impact nurses had on patients’ lives. … We’re allowed to interact with them and make them feel special. And that is what nurses did through the COVID epidemic, and that’s what sets us apart and makes nursing so unique as a profession."

Adelphi’s Giuseppe Saggio, 21, who will graduate in May, said he knew nurses who were stressed and overwhelmed by their work on the COVID-19 wards, and at first he was frightened. Now, he said, "It does not make me worry. I chose this profession, I’m sticking to it and I’ll do what I have to do. People know what they are getting into."

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