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Healthy Investment

St. Mary's SCL Health Medical Education Center at Colorado Mesa University ushers in a new era

The relationship that exists between CMU and SCL Health St. Mary’s has changed throughout the decades. In fact, the conception of CMU’s nursing program was a visionary collaboration in the early 1960s between Sister Zita Marie of St. Mary’s Hospital, Abe Bolotin of the Veterans Affairs Administration and Horace Wubben, PhD, then president of Mesa College. They talked frequently about the healthcare needs of rural western Colorado. At the time, there were no other academic programs of this kind in Colorado. It was this bold thinking that started the collaboration between SCL Health St. Mary’s and CMU that continues today. These three community leaders could never have guessed more than a half a century later that Mesa College would become a burgeoning university leading regional health education, and that SCL Health St. Mary’s would invest its largest contribution in CMU, which in turn is CMU’s largest gift in its history. 

In the last year, private investors generously gifted CMU significant investments totaling more than $7 million. Despite near record donations, SCL Health St. Mary’s established a new high watermark donating $3 million to create the St. Mary’s SCL Health Medical Education Center at CMU in support of the university’s physician assistant, occupational therapy and physical therapy programs. 

“CMU and St. Mary’s have grown together over the last century and will prosper together in the coming decades thanks to this capstone investment in our health-related disciplines,” said CMU President Tim Foster. “The leadership of St. Mary’s advancing this long-standing partnership, and their record pacing financial  contribution will pay community health dividends to people who live in the region for years to come.”

Conceptual renderings of St. Mary's SCL Health Medical Education Center.

St. Mary’s Hospital, established in 1912, and Grand Junction Junior College, established in 1925, began making their respective contributions to the community near the same time. The two organizations continue those contributions together today. When it comes to nursing, CMU offers a career ladder approach where aspiring nurses may earn a certificate and then work up to associate, bachelor’s, master’s and even a doctorate. This approach to nursing careers and credentialing allows practitioners to ascend the career ladder during the course of their professional lives with support from employers. The current interinstitutional programming  between St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center and CMU includes volunteer options, internships, clinical training,
and career and employment opportunities that started with humble beginnings and have grown throughout time  along with the expanding community.

Healthcare is a unique part of the economy when it comes to workforce development. In many sectors a simple  internship can suffice for workforce transition. Those entering medical-related fields generally need to acquire an  abundance of real-world experience prior to working with patients. The medical community calls this experience  clinical rotations. These rotations are essential to CMU’s health-related disciplines and SCL Health St. Mary’s is  among the largest and most consistent medical establishments to offer students these transitionary experiences
between education and becoming full-fledged medical practitioners.

“There is no way to fully value the contributions made to CMU by St. Mary’s in the form of clinical rotations,” said CMU Director of Nursing Education Programs Lucy Graham, PhD. “It’s not only the volume of rotations available, but also the diversity of experiences and trainings that the hospital offers students.”

Nursing has always been and remains a fixture within CMU’s health sciences department. The university initiated an associate of nursing degree program in 1961. In 1971, a third of the graduating class was in turn employed by
St. Mary’s and the hospital continues to serve western Colorado by employing a significant number of CMU nurses today.

“In some ways the career ladder model at CMU extends into our medical partnerships as our students transition from college to employees,” said Department of Health Sciences Head Betty Schans, PhD. “The relationship
between CMU and area hospitals like St. Mary’s is so strong that those who want to live, work and serve in western Colorado are almost certain to find opportunities here in the Grand Valley.”

The generosity of SCL Health St. Mary’s extends beyond providing clinical training and investing in their future workforce. Throughout the years, St. Mary’s has extended its support to CMU by making contributions to the health sciences endowment. This fund continues to grow and is a permanent and expanding resource for health sciences at CMU. In addition to supporting the endowment, St. Mary’s through the Saccamono Research Center donated more than $200,000 in research equipment to CMU’s biology department.

The donated equipment had surpassed its useful life when it came to cancer research, but the valuable technology is beneficial when it comes to student training and research. The equipment allows students to conduct cellular, molecular and developmental biology research at a level not available on campus before.

“The donation of valuable research equipment to our faculty and students helps to spark creativity and expand the nature of the scientific exploration engaged by undergraduates here at CMU,” said Associate Professor of Biology Kyle McQuade, PhD. One example of scientific endeavor made possible by the donated research equipment is an ongoing research project within the Department of Biology. The project addresses an issue of national significance and the outcomes may lead to a better understanding of how federal, state and local governments can control invasive plant species that threaten the ecological integrity of western landscapes. The project was outlined by CMU Assistant Professor of Biology Zeynep Ozsoy, PhD, on the CMUnow Special Edition podcast in February 2021. Ozsoy explained her newfound ability to explore the fundamental differences between subspecies of small beetles that were imported to the United States from Asia as a biological control for Tamarisk, a widespread invasive tree species that damages waterways and landscapes throughout the western United States.

The project underway by Ozsoy, and the future potential research projects contemplated by McQuade, demonstrate the importance of the support provided to CMU by SCL Health St. Mary’s outside of the traditional medical disciplines.

When the $3 million investment was announced during a CMU Facebook Live event on February 10, CMU President Tim Foster and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center President Bryan Johnson discussed the significance of the project, the organizations’ histories and potential future collaborations between SCL Health and CMU. After the announcement, officials visited the new construction site of the building that will ultimately bear the health organization’s name.

“Both St. Mary’s and CMU have a regional mission to serve,” said Johnson. “While CMU educates students, we serve the community health and wellness needs of western Colorado. The two purposes intersect. And many of our nurses and medical professionals are hired from CMU. This gift and the new St. Mary’s SCL Health medical training
center will be essential for addressing educational needs and future community healthcare needs as well.”

Once complete, the St. Mary’s SCL Health Medical Education Center will be a 24,000-square-foot facility that will house the physician assistant, occupational therapy and physical therapy programs. The colocation of these programs will create synergy between the disciplines and enable interdisciplinary collaboration.

The Master of Science in Occupational Therapy, coming to CMU in Spring 2022, is one program that will benefit from the St. Mary’s donation as a result of its new location in the education center. This medical field focuses on restoring the ability of people to perform everyday tasks that disability and debilitation may have taken away.

The Doctorate of Physical Therapy will help practitioners improve patients’ mobility and restore their ability to live an active lifestyle. This program is in the development stages and CMU is hopeful to matriculate the first cohort in Fall 2023.

Department of Kinesiology Head Jeremy Hawkins, PhD, leads a department whose focus is on promoting and managing wellness, physical activity and healthy lifestyles. He sees the expansion of the medical center as hugely beneficial to all health- and wellness-related fields and disciplines.

“We have world-class people here at CMU, and as we add upgraded and new educational spaces our ability to collaborate and work on an interdisciplinary basis will be enhanced,” said Hawkins.

The St. Mary’s SCL Health Medical Education Center will include classrooms and clinical training space and will establish a foundation for future and emerging partnerships and collaborations. It will be located near a proposed expansion to the Maverick Pavilion, a Department of Kinesiology building that upon completion, will have additional
classroom and laboratory spaces that these programs can utilize.

CMU advocating for the medical education center has been going on for nearly a decade. Amy Bronson, EdD, is director of the CMU Physician Assistant Studies Program and is a champion for the medical education center. She has promoted its necessity, alongside other campus leaders, on behalf of the students she serves.

Amy Bronson, EdD, director of the CMU Physician Assistant Studies Program and Bryan Johnson, president of SCL Health St. Mary's Regional Medical Center.

“Our students, faculty and staff advocated tirelessly for this building over the last decade and their time, energy
and efforts resulted in this exciting convergence of timely support,” said Bronson. “The unprecedented contribution is helping the CMU Foundation raise additional funds from a litany of foundations and other private donors.”

In 2021, the CMU Foundation noted that the Colorado Health Foundation, Community Hospital, the El Pomar Foundation, the Bacon Family Foundation and the Boettcher Foundation supplied additional support that has
complemented the anchor gift from SCL Health St. Mary’s.

“In addition to a much needed building, the medical center investment helps create an infrastructure where we can more easily adapt the needs of each organization to one another’s, and work together to prepare students to enter the medical and healthcare workforce,” concluded Bronson.

The St. Mary’s SCL Health Medical Education Center began construction in early 2021 and is slated for completion and commissioning in late 2021.


Written by David Ludlam