By Dr. Joseph B. Long CST, FAST, EdD

I worked for a number of years as a CST for two different health care institutions and served surgical technology students for two different post-secondary schools in the role of dean and program director. I only mention this to inform you that I have “been around the block”, so to speak. During my time in education, I have always embraced the philosophy that I must be open to new ways of doing things.

While most of us believe we know what works best for ourselves and our students, I would suggest that we all need to be open minded to the possibility of new ways of doing things. If I ever believe that the program I head up cannot be improved upon in some way, then that would mean it’s time for me to move out of education.

Okay! And now to the focus of this article. The program I oversee is a selective admissions program, admitting 24 students on an annual basis. While we have never witnessed retention rates drop below the 60 percent threshold, we have been close a few times.

I am sure you have had issues come up for your students, making their reasons for not succeeding in your program beyond your or their control: pregnancies, motor vehicle accidents, finances, health issues, family issues, etc. However, from time to time, I have witnessed some students not being successful due to things I might have been able to positively impact.

We all know that not everyone will pass their comps, although we have seen some improvements by offering open/extended lab opportunities for our students prior to competency checkoffs. But how can we assist our students prior to them beginning the professional track of the program?

I would suggest that holding an orientation one month prior to classes beginning would be a great start. While you can cover the details in your handbook, make sure not to “sugar coat” anything so students know exactly what will be expected of them. To hopefully improve student retention, be sure to inform them about things that are in your control: professionalism, punctuality, health forms, drug screening, background checks, transportation to clinical sites, the number of hours and cases required to complete the program, driving distances, case logs, time sheets, evaluations, journals, outside of class work, online work, competencies and whatever else that might be specific to your program.

Following one orientation I held, I had two students drop right away; one student decided it was too much work and the other thought they were going to take public transportation to the clinical sites. At that time, I was able to dip into the alternate pool of students and still begin with a full class without negatively impacting my retention statistics, as opposed to having these two students drop after classes had begun.

As I mentioned earlier, we must always look to possibly doing things in a new way. We are all critical and creative thinkers, and I continually ponder what else might I do to better serve the students in my charge. At our school, we have moved toward embracing “100 percent student success”. While this may not seem probable or even possible, we owe it to the students to do the best we can in hopes of them realizing success.

So what else might I do? This last academic year I instituted four pre-orientation orientations; two in the fall and two in the spring. Flyers were posted around campus and announcements were posted at our college website. This was for students taking pre-requisite courses for the program and also open to anyone that might want to learn more about our profession; last year we had 73 persons attend. This not only provides information to prospective students, it gets information out about who we are.

What do I do at these pre-orientations (informational sessions)? I explain the profession, with some gory pictures of course, and provide abbreviated information from our handbook (our handbook is available at the college’s website; I provide a hard copy at the primary orientation). I cover the cognitive, psychomotor and affective learning domains so persons in attendance understand what it takes to be successful in this profession. Faculty provide real life experiences. And for sure we have an extended Q&A session at the end. The worst thing that can happen in a program is to have someone begin a program and drop because they did not fully understand what they were getting into.

So, yes, there will still be some things beyond your control for students not progressing in your program. But, there may be things within your control whereby you may witness improved student retention in the future. We owe it to the students to let them know the intricacies of our profession and what is expected of them in our programs. They must be on time, in attendance, professional, have reliable transportation, and the like. After a student came to me one year and was dropping because she didn’t know what she was getting into, I felt sick to my stomach; it was a disservice on my part to this student. As program directors, I believe we are a sharing group and I thank you for allowing me to share this with you. I hope you have other ideas that you might share with your colleagues and that you were able to glean some information or new ideas from this information provided. Thanks again!

Dr. Joseph B Long, CST, FAST, EdD, is the Surgical Technology Lead Faculty Member at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan. Dr. Long has served the surgical technology profession in a variety of volunteer capacities, including Chair of the Accreditation Review Council on Education in Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting, and Director on the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs Board of Directors. He continues to travel and conduct on-site accreditation visits all over the country, representing ARC-STSA and CAAHEP. He has served as a Director on the Michigan State Assembly Board of Directors. He has contributed to the textbook Surgical Technology for the Surgical Technologist: A Positive Care Approach. Dr. Long worked in the operating room, for two health care institutions, for a combined 20 years, and has been involved in post-secondary education since 1996; he served as Dean of Health and Human Services for a private college for seven years, and has headed up the Surgical Technology Program at Lansing Community College since 2003. His academic focus revolves around an interest in applying the principles of metacognition to assessment and evaluation of educational programs and student learning.