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FALL 2009

University Keeps Community Fit in More Ways than One

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ILLUSTRATION CHRIS GALL

BY ED FRAUENHEIM

Cal State East Bay helps keep harry wolf sharp.

Wolf, 86, often attends monthly lectures and other programs sponsored by the University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Presentations at Cal State East Bay’s Concord Campus on topics such as classical music and current events provoke his thinking and prompt him to get out of his Walnut Creek house. 

He’s not alone. More than 50 people regularly attend the monthly lectures in the Oak Room auditorium. These gatherings, like other events sponsored by the OLLI program, are geared toward the 50-and-over crowd.

“There’s always an interest on the part of older people — a fear that they’re going to lose their faculties,” says Wolf, a former professor at Golden Gate University. “I can keep my body stimulated and my mind stimulated.”

The OLLI program is one of many ways California State University, East Bay, boosts the health of the Bay Area. If “community health” is defined broadly as a region’s physical, mental, and intellectual health, Cal State East Bay plays a key role in each aspect.

Consider a few of the University’s health-enhancing activities. Kinesiology department faculty such as Sue Rodearmel are on the front-lines of researching and promoting active lifestyles, a crucial way to improve physical and mental well-being. Also aiding the mental health of the region are the University’s graduates with master’s degrees in social work and counseling.

Among the most visible ways Cal State East Bay improves the health of the area is its production of nurses and other healthcare professionals for local hospitals and clinics. 

In 2006, Cal State East Bay teamed up with health care provider John Muir Health to expand the school’s nursing program to the Concord Campus. That allowed the University to more than double the number of students earning bachelor of science degrees in nursing, to about 150 per year.

“We provide the workforce for the hospitals in our community,” says Carolyn Fong, chair of the Cal State East Bay’s Department of Nursing and Health Sciences.

A partner in the community

The University’s role in the health of the East Bay is part of the school’s broader vision of regional stewardship. Universities that roll up their sleeves and get involved in their region can make a big difference, says Mike McGrath, editor of National Civic Review journal. The publication is part of the National Civic League, a Denver-based group that foster innovative community building and political reform.

“Universities can play a really crucial role in making communities great places to live,” McGrath says.

A major way Cal State East Bay tries to make its communities better places to live is by preparing a local health care workforce. Cal State East Bay has long been a key institution in the development of talent for the region’s hospitals and other health care institutions. Graduates of the school’s nursing program now hold leadership roles at a number of area facilities. These include Ernell Antonio ’00, director of clinical services at Fremont Hospital, a 96-bed psychiatric care facility in Fremont, as well as Rose Corcoran, vice president of patient care services for the Eden Campus of Eden Medical Center, which has operations in Castro Valley and San Leandro.

Another graduate of the program is Viki Ardito ’76, chief nursing officer at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, which has campuses in Berkeley and Oakland. 

Ardito says her professors taught her to treat people’s mind, body, and spirit, not just the disease afflicting them. That holistic philosophy has returned to the foreground in healthcare, says Ardito, who supervises some 1,900 nurses.

“They absolutely were very patient-centric, which is what we’re back to,” she says.

Ardito says Cal State East Bay nursing graduates stand out for their extensive hands-on training. 

“They turn out very high caliber nurses that tend to be able to hit the ground running,” Ardito says. 

Cal State East Bay’s nursing program puts students in “preceptorships” during their last quarter, where they spend three days a week in clinical settings. As a result, the University’s nursing students spend more time in the field than students at other nursing preparation programs in the area, Fong says.

“I think that helps them become more confident when they get out in the real world,” Fong says.

Better educated nurses

Cal State East Bay’s nursing program was so highly thought of by John Muir Health that the Contra Costa County health system decided to team up with the University in the Concord Campus program. John Muir Health is contributing a total of $3.8 million over seven years, including the cost of retrofitting facilities and the donation of sophisticated mannequins for a simulation lab.

Amid the current recession, the oft-mentioned nursing shortage has eased, says Jan Hunter, director of workforce planning and development for John Muir Health. But she expects regional demand for nurses to pick up over time, in part because Contra Costa County’s population is aging.

Cal State East Bay’s expanded program not only increases the volume of local nurses, but also the quality, Hunter says. The Concord campus lets nursing professionals earning two-year associates degrees at nearby community colleges continue on for a four-year degree. Research shows nurses with bachelors’ degrees “have better-honed critical thinking skills and in some cases better patient outcomes,” Hunter says. 

The Concord Campus nursing program also makes it easy for current John Muir Health staff to get their four-year nursing diploma, Hunter says. Having a program close to their work locations makes it more convenient for them to work and complete their degree, she says.

So far, about 50 John Muir Health employees have graduated from the program. Sussan Kotsos, a clerk in the emergency room of John Muir Health’s Walnut Creek campus completed her preceptorship during the summer in the intensive care unit of John Muir’s Concord campus. She expects to graduate in December.

A 42-year-old mother of two living in Walnut Creek, Kotsos appreciates the proximity of Cal State East Bay’s Concord Campus to her home. And she likes the way instructors in the University’s nursing program include both academics and clinical staff from John Muir, who can provide real-life examples.

Among her high points in the program was the care she gave a patient on a ventilator who had had a tracheotomy. Kotsos employed the training she received in “therapeutic touch,” wiping the patient’s forehead with a cool washcloth. He was unable to talk during this time, but once his tracheostomy device was adjusted, he spoke to Kotsos. 

“He looked at me and said, ‘I just want to thank you. I know how much you care,’” she recalls. “He was getting choked up. And I was getting choked up.”

Sound bodies, sound minds

Beyond the training of health care professionals, the University also improves the physical health of the region through the preparation of workers that help keep the community fit. This is no small matter, given the nationwide obesity epidemic and the need to help an aging population stay active.  

Graduates from the Department of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism can pursue careers such as recreation program coordinators, youth sports directors, and retirement community program directors. 

Then there’s the Department of Kinesiology, which is the science of human movement. Graduates of the department can go on to careers including physical education teachers, athletic trainers, and wellness specialists.

Kinesiology Assistant Professor Sue Rodearmel plans to take an active role herself in helping the community’s health. Rodearmel, who joined the University in 2008, earned a $10,000 “new faculty grant” to work on an obesity prevention initiative for the greater Hayward area. She hopes to replicate work done in Fort Collins, Colorado, where a coalition Rodearmel helped lead introduced healthier foods and increased physical activity in local schools. Her goal this fall is to begin talks with Hayward school officials and other stakeholders. She plans to focus early efforts on elementary schools.

A key to success, Rodearmel argues, is having individual schools assess their needs regarding healthy eating and physical activity opportunities. Then “school wellness champions” can set priorities, create an action plan, and put it into practice.

McGrath of the National Civic Review calls Rodearmel’s anti-obesity project “a perfect example” of the way universities can make a positive difference in their communities.

A key cause of the obesity epidemic, in Rodearmel’s view, is that physical education and other physical activity opportunities have been cut considerably in most schools throughout the nation.  

“Kids are both less skilled at movement and less physically fit,” she says. “Thus, physical activity isn’t as fun for them.”

Active lifestyles aren’t just good for the body, they’re good for the mind. Professor Penny McCullagh, chair of the kinesiology department, has researched the effect of exercise on depression, one of the most prominent mental health problems afflicting Americans. “We don't do (enough) in this country to prescribe exercise as important for physical as well as mental health,” McCullagh says.

In that sense, the corps of Cal State East Bay graduates out fighting for fitness is also helping combat mental illness.

The University also promotes mental health in the region by producing graduates with degrees in the field. Students can earn bachelor’s degrees in psychology as well as master’s degrees in counseling. In addition, the school’s social work master’s program prepares people for careers in community mental health and child welfare.

Since 2004, Cal State East Bay has graduated approximately 400 students with a master’s of social work. Most alumni of the program have moved into leadership positions at public social welfare agencies across the Bay Area, says Terry Jones, CSUEB professor emeritus of sociology.

“As part of its mission to meet the needs of constituents in its service area, the MSW program at Cal State East Bay prepares multiculturally competent social work students in mental health and child welfare,” Jones says. “In doing this, we produce social workers who contribute significantly to the expansion and refinement of quality child welfare and mental health programs so vital to the development, expansion, and refinement of healthy communities.”

Challenging minds

A close cousin to mental health is intellectual health. The intellectual health of a community might be defined as the extent to which residents engage with ideas, challenge their own thinking and use their brains to their full capacity. By its very nature, Cal State East Bay promotes intellectual health by allowing residents of all ages to pursue degrees ranging from accounting to theatre arts.

The school also offers a steady course of provocative lectures and cultural events. Case in point: the University’s production of Tongues, a play exploring existential themes, was judged one of the top college productions in the country this year in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

Cal State East Bay’s OLLI program takes the University’s role in the life of local minds a step further. Sponsored by the Bernard Osher Foundation and the University’s Division of Continuing and International Education, the program seeks to enrich the intellectual life of the area’s older population. 

OLLI not only provides lectures at the Concord campus, but brings speakers to seniors in places like the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living residence facility in Danville and the Casa Sandoval retirement community in Hayward.

Research indicates intellectual stimulation staves off dementia in older adults. Harry Wolf is quite conscious of the use-it-or-lose-it concept as he continues to take classes. Wolf, a widower who taught public administration at Golden Gate University for more than two decades, had surgery earlier this year on his spine. Such an event can turn an elderly person into a shut-in, with a corresponding decline of the mind. But no, Wolf is out with his cane making it to the Concord campus. 

OLLI classes have fascinated him. He learned, for example, that the U.S. Civil War included aerial warfare with balloons and female spies who hid messages in their hair. Earlier this year, he signed up for a course on Ashkenazi Jews. His mental gears began to whir.

“It looks like it’s going to be a great course,” he says.

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