Jen LaFlure, BSN, found her calling in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, caring for the tiniest and most fragile infants.

It took a few tough years to get to her dream job. She juggled a busy work schedule and a full-time class load, so she could support herself and pay for her nursing education.

That’s why LaFlure knows, better than most, what the new $7 million scholarship fund created by Spectrum Health and Grand Rapids Community College will mean for students pursuing health care degrees.

“It’s going to be a huge help to them,” said LaFlure, a GRCC graduate. “There’s a lot of students―a lot of people less fortunate than I was―who could really benefit from it.”

The GRCC Health Care Professionals Education Scholarship Fund will be created at Spectrum Health to help students interested in health sciences and health care careers. Five percent, or $350,000, will be provided to the GRCC Foundation each year in perpetuity for scholarships.

The scholarships, based on financial need, will be available starting with the 2017-18 academic year.

The partnership between Spectrum Health and GRCC benefits students, patients and the health care system, said Spectrum Health President and CEO Richard Breon.

“The connection between education and health care delivery is very synergistic,” he said. “We are still a very labor-intensive industry, and we need well-trained people to care for patients.

“If we can help provide funds for scholarships in this way, this will be a real benefit for everybody.”

The scholarships will build the talent pipeline for Spectrum Health, benefiting students preparing for a wide range of jobs, including nursing, nursing assistants, medical assistants, lab technicians and occupational therapy assistants, said Pamela Ries, chief human resources officer for Spectrum Health.

LaFlure received her associate degree in nursing from GRCC in 2004. While taking classes, she worked 30 hours a week as a nurse tech.

The scholarships not only help the students, they help out the community by filling workforce needs.

Julie Lepzinski, BSN, MBA
Spectrum Health chief operating officer

Although that was not easy, she knows some of her classmates had an even more challenging time handling the work-school balance, particularly those with young children.

“The scholarship would have been great,” she said.

The sacrifices were worth it to find a career she loves, she added. She now works at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in the Small Baby Unit, an area of the NICU that provides specialized care for preemies born before 28 weeks.

“I love being able to be there for the families,” she said. “We are able to support them through the toughest times of their lives. It’s very rewarding.”

For LaFlure, an associate degree was just the first step in her nursing career. She later received her bachelor’s degree through an online program, and she hopes to get a master’s degree eventually.

“I love nursing,” she said. “I love the variety it gives me every day.”

A ‘debt-free’ goal

The scholarship program “will represent a real asset” to GRCC, said college President Steven Ender, Ed.D. “For us to be able to provide scholarships to hundreds of students each year forever surpasses my wildest expectations of what we might achieve there.”

GRCC will work with students to determine their financial aid and ability to pay tuition. Scholarship funds will be used to help those who would need loans to cover costs.

“It could mean that people are leaving here potentially debt-free out of those programs,” Dr. Ender said.

GRCC’s health care programs include nursing, dental assisting and hygiene, occupational therapy and radiation technology. A medical assistant apprenticeship program allows students to combine education with paid employment.

With the new scholarship fund, the college may be able to expand its offerings, Ender said.

“This allows us to dream a little bigger than we have been able to dream,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful display of community partnerships.”

GRCC’s foundation now awards $650,000 in scholarships every year. The new program will provide a 50 percent increase in funds available to students in need, Dr. Ender said.

“It’s a community benefit, as the college and an employer work together to address workforce issues,” said Julie Lepzinski, BSN, MBA, the chief operating officer for Spectrum Health and a GRCC grad. “Through programs like these, we enhance our chances of keeping students in the community after graduation.”

Lepzinski understands how much a financial boost can mean to a student. When she studied nursing at the college in the early 1980s, she and her husband had three young children.

“I received a $400 academic scholarship that paid for books for two semesters, and that made all the difference,” she said.

Lepzinski now gives back to her alma mater by serving on the board of directors for the GRCC foundation. And she sees how the benefits of a scholarship ripple through the community.

“The scholarships not only help the students, they help the community by addressing our workforce needs, by filling positions our employers in the community need,” she said.