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78-year old becomes Nurse Aide after enrolling at SRTC

Seventy-eight-year-old Helen Yates King is redefining what it means to have a senior moment. One month before her 79th birthday, she just completed her very first semester as a college co-ed at Southern Regional Technical College (SRTC). Neatly dressed in her program’s soft blue scrubs, she speaks about her college days with uncontained delight. “Going to college has given me the greatest joy I have ever had. I am just enjoying this more than anything I have ever done in my life.”

College was not a consideration when she was a younger woman. In high school, she admits that she was not terribly focused on her studies. “Not much was expected of girls then except to be good homemakers.” By the time she graduated high school in 1960, she was already a married woman. One of fourteen siblings, Helen has devoted most of her time to caring for family. “I spent whole entire life taking care of my siblings and my husband, and raising my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.” She still serves as caretaker to her youngest sister.

When Helen was 68 years old, she retired from a job that she had taken after her husband passed away. A decade into retirement, however, she became tired of being retired. “I found myself with nothing to do. I was slowing down and I just could not handle that. I love being at home, but it was not enough. I could still be productive! I will not sit there and do nothing for the time I have left.” While she has no complaints about the first eight decades of her life, she now says with confidence, “It is time for me now!”

After a lifetime of caring for others, joining the healthcare field felt like a natural fit for Helen. She registered for the Certified Nurse Aide (CNA) program at SRTC-Bainbridge and nervously began reading the first chapter of her college textbook. “I had not been in a classroom in 60 years! I had never been in college a day in my life. I didn’t know what to expect.” What she found was that her life experience had prepared her to be an excellent student. “I found out that I love studying! My brain has been working better. My memory has improved. Everything is better! That book looked so threatening when I first opened it, but I just took it page-by-page, and I loved what I discovered. I was putting four to five hours of day into studying. I just could not get enough!”

Nurse Aide instructor Ronda Kirkpatrick has been teaching at SRTC for nine years, but she has never had a student like Helen. “I have never encountered a student who wanted this more than Mrs. Helen. The first time I met her, I could look at her and tell that she was going to do this, and she did! She never gave up. She made mistakes like any student, but she never let challenges stop her. Mrs. Helen is proof that is not too late for anyone to start college.”

For her part, Helen appreciated the challenging and rewarding classroom experience. “Ronda was phenomenal as a teacher. She was thorough and she was tough, but that is what we needed. She was so very conscientious about us caring for patients and for ourselves. She went out of her way to make sure we were prepared for this career path.” Helen said that she found working and learning on computers to be a serious hurdle, but she did not let that slow her down. She took advantage of the free tutoring services in SRTC’s Student Success Center and put that obstacle behind her, too. Healthcare is in Helen’s family DNA. Over 100 years ago, her grandfather was the “country doctor” for his small rural community. Among his progeny are an array of physician’s assistants, nurses, doctors, hospice workers, and specialists. Helen has joined her family’s calling to healthcare as a Home Health Care Provider, which she says allows her patients to feel comfortable, calm, and secure in their own familiar surroundings. Through her life, Helen has already encountered and lived through much of her what her patients and their families are experiencing. She feels that her experience and earned empathy allow her to offer her patients and their families companionship as well as care. She says the need for home health care is continuing to grow. “I see a tremendous need out there. So many hurting people need someone to help them. It is what I have always done on my own, and now I have training and education to provide even better care.”

To cap a successful first semester of college, Helen passed the National Nurse Aide Assessment Program exam on her first attempt. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing developed the rigorous exam to measure competency in nurse aide knowledge and skills. After receiving her certification, Helen is now listed on the Georgia Nurse Aide Registry, and can practice basic patient care responsibilities under the supervision of a licensed nurse. Instructor Ronda Kirkpatrick noted that passing the NNAAP exam was a major achievement itself. “Mrs. Helen was successful in the course, but for me, the big deal is that she passed this exam which is known to be very challenging and stressful to most students.”

Residents of Georgia who are 62 years of age or older are eligible for a tuition waiver at SRTC and all other public colleges and universities in Georgia. Under this policy, the College grants admission on a space-available basis. Helen was able to take advantage of this senior benefit, and only had to pay for the cost of her book and materials. In the fall, she will continue to take advantage of the benefit, because Helen is not done with college yet. “The CNA class has really got me inspired, so I am going to continue on and take Practical Nursing classes next!”

As Helen Yates King prepares to enter her ninth decade, she hopes to inspire other seniors to consider returning to college and maybe even starting a new career, as she is doing. “There are a lot of older people who could get out there and have a whole new career! As a single woman, it is easy to get lonely, but this certainly keeps me occupied and makes me so happy. This has been such an enjoyable new chapter in my life!”