Dr. Brooke Epperson admitted she was caught off-guard when she learned the news.
Epperson, an assistant professor and undergraduate coordinator in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga School of Nursing, had applied for a U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant via the agency’s Nursing Education, Practice, Quality and Retention (NEPQR) Simulation Education Training (SET) program.
Although confident in the application materials submitted, Epperson—a first-time project director applying for her first federal grant—was cautioned by UTC Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP) personnel to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
“They were like, ‘Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get it the first time. Grant writing is an art,’” Epperson recalled. “I was fully under the impression that I would probably not get it.
“And then we got the email and I just about fell out of my chair.”
Epperson and the School of Nursing have been funded $1,388,439 over a three-year project period for AHEAD-RN—an acronym for Addressing Health Equity, Access and Diversity through Nursing simulation experiences and partnerships.
Through AHEAD-RN, UTC and clinical partners will increase the availability and capacity of nurses by concentrating on the health care needs and improving patient outcomes of rural and/or medically underserved populations. They will use innovative academic-practice partnerships to prepare undergraduate nursing students for the workforce through clinical and simulation experiences that combine academic and clinical learning.
Landing the award is especially noteworthy, according to ORSP, because it is the first grant funding received for the UTC undergraduate BSN program in many years.
“The premise of this grant is to have practice-ready graduates,” said Epperson, a member of the UTC faculty since 2016 and a nurse at Tennova Healthcare Cleveland in Bradley County. “We have new BSN essentials that came out from the (American Association of Colleges of Nursing)—a part of our accrediting body—with a really big focus on end-of-life and palliative care.”
Palliative care is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses like cancer or heart failure.
“So we were thinking of how can we step up our game from a simulation perspective to be able to meet the needs of our students and to be able to care for individuals with certain behavioral health issues, end of life, palliative, the aging population and homelessness,” she continued.
The grant will increase training opportunities for BSN students through the use of simulation-based technology, including equipment, to increase their readiness to practice upon graduation.
“I always feel like we graduate practice-ready students, but there are some situations they’re not going to see as often or be a part of in the clinical setting as often,” Epperson said. “Not every student is going to get that experience of being able to see someone transition at the end of life or be in palliative care. What does that mean? Difficult conversations.
“Every student will be exposed to it, and we’re also looking at creating a homeless sim(ulation). So again, providing care in different areas the students aren’t necessarily in regularly and ensuring that everybody has that experience and feels confident in the material.”
Epperson said the BSN program typically has around 200 students at any given time, estimating that 350 to 400 students will be impacted during the grant period.
The end goal, she said, is not only for current students to be practice-ready but also to create a sustainable curriculum for students coming into the program after the grant funding ends.
“Being able to help these students have real-life scenarios, the equipment to be able to learn in a safe space here at the School of Nursing and be able to take those skills out to the community and our practice partners and—upon graduation—feel more prepared to be able to care for these populations is huge,” she said.
“It’s something that we feel passionate about: That our students have already been exposed to certain experiences here at the School of Nursing so that they are ready to take care of that patient population and hit the ground running when they pass the NCLEX (examination).”
Epperson, a registered nurse since 2006, has three degrees from UTC—a BSN in 2010, a Doctor of Nursing Practice in 2020 and a Master of Business Administration in 2021.
The MBA, she said, came into play during the grant application process.
“It helped me understand the whole picture of what we were going to do with this grant, where we could put money and what that’s going to look like,” Epperson said. “But I want to give all of the credit to Ashley in the grant office. She’s the one that put it together.”
Ashley Ledford is the ORSP’s director of pre-award services.
“We work with faculty with all different levels of experience with grant writing,” said Ledford, a UTC staff member since 2019 who joined ORSP in 2021. “So we work with those like Brooke who have had no prior experience and those who can do it by themselves. It runs the gamut.
“I personally love working with the early- or the new-grant writing faculty. It’s fun to be able to explain the whole process and what needs to happen—and be able to walk them through it, to see them get to the end of it and see all they’ve accomplished. Especially with something federal like a HRSA grant, it’s such a rewarding experience.”
Epperson said it would take several months of planning to get everything together, hoping to introduce new simulations in the classroom during the spring semester.
“I had about 30 seconds of a whole 360 degrees of emotions,” she said. “It went from, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m so excited. This is amazing for the School of Nursing students,’ to ‘Oh my goodness, we got this. Now, what are we going to do?’
“This is amazing, but now the work really begins.”