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Conquering Anatomy On The Way To A Stable Career

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Nursing is one of the most sought after jobs in the country right now. Enrollment in nursing programs at community colleges has increased every year for the past 10 years. But in order to get a degree, students have to get through a tough course right at the beginning - anatomy and physiology. NPR's Zoe Chace followed a few students taking anatomy and physiology at West Kentucky Community College to see how they fared.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: I met Jonathan Harned on his very first day of school. He enrolled in anatomy and physiology for a simple reason.

JONATHAN HARNED: I want to be a nurse.

CHACE: Not the stereotypical nursing candidate - former marine, crew cut, 40 years old. This was not his original plan.

HARNED: I was going to get a job like my dad at some big factory or something and just stay there for 30 years and retire.

CHACE: But he couldn't find a job like that. Instead, he tried everything else he could find in the area without a college degree.

HARNED: Mechanic's shop.

CHACE: Trucker.

HARNED: Concrete finisher.

CHACE: And now he puts up billboards, like ones you see on the side of the road. He's been doing that for 10 years.

HARNED: I make $17.61 an hour right now. And in February I'll make over $18 and if I lose this job, for any given reason, I'm back to $10-12 an hour. I have no security. I've had 22 years of reasons why I want to be here.

CHACE: A nursing job in this area has a starting salary of $19 an hour. And so he's sitting in the front row taking notes on the integumentary system.

HARNED: It's a lot all at once.

CHACE: In the back of the class is Samantha Spegal - 22-year-old blonde. Unlike Jonathan, she's whipping through the worksheet.

Have you taken this class before?

SAMANTHA SPEGAL: No.

CHACE: So how do you know this stuff?

SPEGAL: I've taken other classes that are, like, medical terminology and stuff like that.

CHACE: She's not too worried. She's working two jobs - certified nursing assistant and EMT and she figures that gives her an advantage. But her goal is just the same as Jonathan's - to make more money. She makes $10.95 an hour right now, so she wants to become a paramedic. Most people in class seem fairly nervous the first day. It's a notoriously tough class and there's a lot riding on this. I checked in a month later.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

HARNED: Hello.

CHACE: Jonathan, what's up?

HARNED: Just doing a lot of schoolwork, got another test tonight.

CHACE: You do?

HARNED: The first two weeks was just overwhelming and devastating. It's hard to keep up if you've never done it and I haven't done this.

CHACE: He's spent 10 hours each week just studying anatomy and physiology and he just got his first two tests back.

HARNED: It's actually a 94, so - and then the lab, it was 49 out of 50.

CHACE: Straight A's.

HARNED: So far.

CHACE: Samantha Spegal - the one with the medical background - I asked how she did on the test.

SPEGAL: I was quite disappointed in myself and I was like OK.

CHACE: What did you get?

SPEGAL: Oh, I got a 63.

CHACE: She explains it was harder to manage her time than she thought. She's a single mom. She's got those two jobs and, frankly, she felt like she hadn't gotten enough science in high school to keep up with the class.

SPEGAL: Then once we started breaking down into what, you know, covalent bonds and stuff and I was like this is a lot more over my head (laughter).

CHACE: She dropped the course at the end of September. She says she was pretty ashamed. She thought she was the only one, but when I called their teacher Steve Cahill...

STEVE CAHILL: This is an exceptional class. We lost so many students this term.

CHACE: About half the students dropped out of this class - not Jonathan, though.

HARNED: My class is finally over. All my tests are done. I've made As in all my classes.

CHACE: Professor Cahill describes Jonathan as the ideal community college student - front row, asking questions, coming to office hours, tutoring and life experience making him pretty desperate.

HARNED: Just got to a frustrated point in my life where I've had enough. I want something different.

CHACE: Jonathan's got one-and-a-half more years here, but everyone at the school says if you can make it through anatomy and physiology, you will do fine in the rest of the classes. Zoe Chace, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.