With new scholarship fund, Marquette Nursing looks to recruit more students from rural areas

Marquette alumni Mike and Kathy Cain’s gift boosts college’s efforts

Illustration by Mike Austin

There are only about 6,000 people in sophomore nursing student Shania Sopa’s hometown of Waupaca, Wisconsin. An hour west of Green Bay, Waupaca has one hospital and no endocrinologists, which became inconvenient when Sopa had to manage her Type 1 diabetes. 

“Access to some things were limited; there aren’t a ton of specialties in the hospital and you’re really only going there for general needs,” Sopa says. 

Sopa came to Milwaukee after graduating from Waupaca High School in 2022. Seniors Anna Hlavac and Cecilia Oettinger made the same choice, coming from Stevens Point and Baraboo, respectively. For all three students, witnessing the triumphs and challenges of rural health care at a young age influenced their decisions to become nurses. 

“A lot of times in a small town, hospital staff know the person they’re caring for personally,” Oettinger says. “We’re able to make a more intimate connection with patients in smaller hospitals because oftentimes, they’re not just a patient to you; they’re your neighbor or your friend.” 

A gift from Marquette alumni Mike and Kathy Cain will broaden the college’s efforts to attract and retain students from rural areas. The gift, which supports undergraduate and graduate students, can be applied to the cost of tuition, housing or any other necessary educational expense. 

This cause is especially important to Dr. Jill Guttormson, dean of the College of Nursing. She was raised in Mellen, Wisconsin, a town of 700 people in the northwest part of the state. Guttormson’s mother lived in northern Wisconsin until recently and needed specialty care, making Guttormson intimately familiar with the lack of health care options most people in rural areas face. 

“The care she received was fantastic, but the distance she had to travel to receive her medical treatment was two hours one way,” Guttormson says. “It’s a lot of time commitment and in the winter, you’re often driving through snowstorms just to get care. If we increase the number of providers in those areas, we can address that problem.” 

Hlavac faced this reality when her brother was in a car accident and went to a hospital in Stevens Point, her hometown, that did not have on-location radiology staff. Her brother waited hours to be diagnosed with a punctured lung; hours that thankfully did not result in lasting damage, but could have. This was not the only instance in which a member of Hlavac’s family was unable to receive convenient treatment for a major medical issue. 

“My grandfather has atrial fibrillation. He has to go to Wausau, about 40 minutes away, for all his check-ups and procedures,” Hlavac says. 

Often, a combination of local and travel nurses fill the ranks of rural hospital staffs. Two-thirds of Wisconsin’s rural counties lost population between 2010 and 2018, however, and the trend is projected to accelerate throughout the rest of the 2020s. There is an increasingly wide staffing gap that must be filled with nurses on contract, even if they rarely stay in an area much beyond their initial term of service. These two forces are combining to create severe staffing problems in small-town health care systems, with some even suspending critical services. 

“It’s part of our mission to meet the nursing shortage and we know that nationally, the shortage is especially severe in rural areas.”

Jill Guttormson, Dean of the College of Nursing

The nurses who take these temporary positions can sometimes face difficulties forming trust with their patient populations as the only strangers in a town where everyone knows each other. While these travel nurses fill an important role in the rural health care system, Oettinger believes more permanent staff roles are necessary. 

“Longer periods of time where you’re consistently caring for patients is the best way to build that trust; two or three visits over a six-month period just isn’t enough,” Oettinger says. 

Guttormson hopes the Cains’ gift will help. She envisions students from rural communities coming to Marquette, receiving a top-quality nursing education while working with diverse patient populations, then taking that knowledge back to their hometowns either after graduation or later in their careers. 

“It’s part of our mission to meet the nursing shortage and we know that nationally, the shortage is especially severe in rural areas,” Guttormson says. “We also hear anecdotally that there are shortages in acute care, nurse-midwifery and anesthesia care; that’s what we’re trying to address. This college serves the needs of its community, and we define that in this case as the state of Wisconsin, not just Milwaukee.” 

Getting prospective nurses from rural areas to go back can be a hard sell, though. Hlavac says she would rather stay in Milwaukee because of the availability of more professional support in the city, not to mention the ability to practice a specialty at some point. She said that incentives such as higher salaries or tuition credit for graduate school would make her more likely to consider going back. 

Sopa, on the other hand, hasn’t ruled out returning to her roots. 

“I’m pretty sure I’m going to stay in a big city to start just to get experience, but maybe eventually when I’m ready to settle down, it would be nice to move into a small town because I really did enjoy it during my childhood.” 

Whether nurses are practicing in a village of 500, a city of 500,000 or anything in between, the lessons of rural nursing — form a connection with the community and be ready for anything — are universal. 

“Lots of people have family members who are in the hospital and not doing well. Establishing trust with that family member and with the circle of people around the patient is critical, and you learn all about that in small towns.” Oettinger says.