By Jake Riddell
As Javier Perez tours Western Governors University’s (WGU) new nursing lab near Salt Lake City, he’s excited for the students who will study and learn there.
“This place is awesome!”
Perez is attending a ribbon-cutting event celebrating the new lab as a representative of WGU’s alumni. He earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2022 from the university’s Leavitt School of Health. He’s a 29-year veteran of the healthcare industry and currently works as an oncology nurse in Houston, Texas. Perez knows the experiences aspiring nurses will get in that lab will mimic real-life scenarios in a safe and controlled environment.
“What students will do here is as close to everyday life for a nurse as you can get,” said Perez. “They learn how to interact with patients and make key, in-the-moment decisions that enhance the quality of care. I’m happy for the students who will learn here because the attention to detail is amazing and the student experience will be second-to-none.”
The nearly 15,000 square foot lab is located on the same property as WGU’s corporate headquarters south of downtown Salt Lake City. Students from Utah, Idaho, and Nevada will be eligible to practice and learn there. The university expects to educate more than 3,000 prospective nurses per year at that site.
The lab in Utah is the latest in a series of training facilities WGU is opening across the nation. The Salt Lake site follows the opening of similar locations in Texas and Missouri. Each of the labs provides crucial, hands-on training to prelicensure nursing students taking their first steps toward a career in healthcare – and signal the nonprofit, online university’s commitment to bridging a key, workforce skills gap.
“We have to find ways of changing the way medical education works, so that we can meet the needs (of the current healthcare workforce),” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, for whom WGU’s School of Health is named. “The thought that we can see 3,000 nurses a year trained (in the Utah lab) is a profound joy.”
Becoming an RN: How Prelicensure Education Works
Becoming a Registered Nurse requires completing a prelicensure education program. Those programs include theory coursework as well as applied clinical experiences. This is the foundational step to prepare an individual for a career in nursing.
“Developing theoretical knowledge is essential for nursing students,” said Kim Kelly-Cortez, WGU’s Interim Vice President and Dean, College of Nursing, Michael O. Leavitt School of Health “However, it’s in the labs where they practice, refine, and perfect their skills. A cutting-edge lab offers a safe and controlled environment where students can simulate real-life scenarios, making mistakes and learning from them without any real-world consequences.”
WGU currently offers prelicensure education to aspiring nurses in eleven states: Florida, Indiana, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah – and that number continues to grow. Students in those states supplement the knowledge and skills learned online with hands-on training, either at practice sites offered by WGU’s healthcare partners or in one of the university’s state-of-the-art simulation labs.
The Role of Philanthropy in Opening New Labs for Nursing Students
WGU’s simulation labs feature pioneering equipment and technology, allowing students to develop teamwork, communication, critical thinking, and other core skills. But equipping those labs requires substantial financial resources. That is where the generous donations of purpose-driven philanthropists come into play.
“We are grateful to our donors for partnering with WGU and turning our vision into a reality,” said Annalisa Holcombe, WGU’s Senior Vice President of Advancement. “With their generous support, we can set up labs that are not just modern but also continuously updated, ensuring students are always learning on equipment that matches current hospital standards. The Salt Lake City lab will transform the educational experience for future Utah and regional nurses and provide lasting advancements in nursing education."
In the case of the Salt Lake City lab, philanthropists' donations helped secure the physical space and outfit it. These donors recognize the demand for more healthcare professionals and what a workforce shortage means to access to quality care. Also, they appreciate the unique position they are in to help change lives for the better – and support WGU’s commitment to providing first-class educational programs and keeping tuition costs low.
“Our donors are investing in the health and well-being of Utah's citizens and communities,” adds Holcombe. “Today’s nursing students are tomorrow’s healthcare providers. A well-equipped lab ensures that the community will have skilled nurses to care for them in the future."
Charting a Path Forward
Across the nation, the need for more working nurses is significant – and the demand has intensified since the pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the number of unfilled positions doubled from the end of 2019 to the beginning of 2022. Along with an aging population and people leaving the industry, reasons for the nurse shortage include access to high-quality educational programs. Data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing show more than 90,000 qualified students in the U.S. were turned away from nursing programs in 2021 alone. WGU’s Leavitt School of Health and its clinical sites add much needed capacity and offer flexible, affordable options for potential nursing students.
“I chose WGU because it fit my busy life, and I could study and learn without giving up on my other responsibilities,” said Perez. “I have an innate desire to help people. I knew at an early age I wanted to work in healthcare. WGU helped make that dream a reality.”
Like Perez, WGU students can feel confident knowing they're earning career-relevant credentials. And for aspiring nurses enrolling in the university’s prelicensure program, they can get the hands-on experience they need in a state-of-the-art learning lab – all made possible by philanthropists and their amazing generosity.
“The role of a nurse is not just technical,” said Perez. “It's also about compassion, leadership, teamwork, and communication. Many of those soft skills are learned in clinical settings. I’m so thankful to our donors for what they’re doing for nurses and the healthcare industry.”