Work of Heart

Author: Sheron Smith
Posted: Thursday, June 2, 2022 12:00 AM
Categories: School of Health and Natural Sciences | Faculty/Staff | Students | Pressroom

Macon, GA

Some of the students in MGA healthcare degree programs. Clockwise are Matt Samson, occupational therapy assistant; Freeman Shepard, nursing; Taylor Nelson, nursing; and Lumpoun Tello, respiratory therapy. Shepard is shown on the Dublin Campus, which MGA is transforming into a healthcare degree program hub.

The pandemic created challenges for healthcare professions but career opportunities still abound. Student interest in Middle Georgia State University’s nursing, respiratory therapy, and rehabilitation sciences programs remains solid and graduates continue to fill critical workforce needs in the region and beyond.


For 21 years, Freeman Shepard has made his living cutting hair.

He and his brother own Shepard Bros. Barber Shop - what they describe as a “classic, two-chair” operation - in downtown Dublin.

While Shepard loves his work, he’s on the path to a second career. In his early 40s, the married father of two daughters enrolled at Middle Georgia State University (MGA) to pursue his associate’s degree in nursing on the Dublin Campus. Once he begins working as a nurse, he plans to complete a bachelor’s degree through the University’s RN-BSN program.

“For some time I just felt led to go into the medical field,” said Shepard, now 43. “I pray every night for guidance and for God to send me where he needs me to be, and I just kept coming back to nursing. The next thing I knew I had driven to the Dublin Campus to start to process of getting into the program. It was just something I couldn’t say ‘no’ to.”

Shepard is thrilled he can pursue his calling in the city where he grew up and still lives. And he is enrolled at MGA during one of the most exciting eras in the history of the Dublin Campus.

Thanks to a combination of substantial state and private funding, MGA is transforming the Dublin Campus into a healthcare degree program hub. Once a major renovation is completed later this summer, MGA plans to begin the process of adding the pre-licensure Bachelor of Science in Nursing to the Dublin Campus offerings. The School of Health and Natural Sciences hopes eventually to expand the Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy to the Dublin Campus, as well as add a new program in physical therapy.

Meanwhile, MGA’s healthcare degrees in general are going well, despite the challenges of the COVID pandemic that forced the School of Health and Natural Sciences to adjust teaching and clinical instruction. Most students seem to have adapted well, and interest in the healthcare degree programs remain strong, said Dr. Tara Underwood, dean of the School of Health and Natural Sciences.

“Based on my conversations with students they still have a desire to serve, despite the pandemic,” she said. “Over the last few years, many of them have personal experiences in which they witnessed how life-changing a healthcare provider can be for their loved ones. They understand how vital the presence of healthcare services is in communities and they want to use their knowledge and skills to help.”

 Katie Poupard, a senior pursuing MGA’s B.S. in nursing and president of the Georgia Association of Nursing Students, noted that more than half the time she and her classmates have invested in their degree program has taken place during the pandemic.

“We don’t really know what nursing school was like pre-COVID,” she said. “We’re going into this with our eyes open, and I feel like MGA has prepared us well to deal with it.” 

Besides nursing, MGA’s School of Health and Natural Sciences offers healthcare degree programs in respiratory therapy and rehabilitation sciences. In addition, the school’s bachelor’s degree in biology is designed for students interested in going on to medical, veterinary, or pharmacy schools.

“There have been a lot of exciting developments for our healthcare degree programs over the last few years,” Underwood said. “Besides the Dublin Campus expansion, there are more scholarships available for students pursuing our degrees. Our facilities are better than ever, with major upgrades to all of our healthcare labs in nursing, respiratory therapy, and rehabilitation sciences, thanks to state funds and community partners.” 

Read on for a closer look at MGA’s healthcare degree programs.


Registered nurses (RNs) provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their families. Nursing includes many specialties, such as oncology, critical care, neonatal, and public health.

In the U.S., employment of RNs is expected to grow 9 percent between 2020 and 2030. “There are so many opportunities in nursing,” said Dr. Donna Ingram, MGA’s chair of the Department of Nursing. “In my 34 years in the field, never have I wondered if I would have a job. Also, the fact that you get to help people is very rewarding.”

She considers the Dublin Campus expansion to be the most exciting development for the University’s nursing program in recent years.

“We’ve had the associate’s degree in nursing there for years, but the community has long asked that we add the pre-licensure BSN program,” Ingram said. “We’ll finally be able to grant that request in the renovated space that includes a 20-bed nursing lab and simulation area.”

MGA currently offers the Master of Science in Adult Gerontology/Acute Care; the pre-licensure Bachelor of Science in Nursing; the RN to BSN; and the Associate of Science in Nursing.  

Respiratory Therapy

Respiratory therapists care for patients who have trouble breathing, often due to chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma or emphysema. In the U.S., employment of respiratory therapists is projected to grow 23 percent between 2020 and 2030.

MGA offered the associate’s degree in respiratory therapy for years but recently transitioned the program to the bachelor’s degree level, a change consistent with the movement within the profession toward advanced degrees. MGA is one of the few colleges and universities in Georgia with a four-year respiratory therapy degree.

“The B.S. has afforded us the opportunity to have more in-depth curriculum in neonatal and pediatric cases, as well as clinical experience, leadership opportunities, and research,” said Teri Miller, chair of the Department of Respiratory Therapy. 

Respiratory therapists have played essential roles during the COVID pandemic and many, like their peers in other healthcare roles, have faced challenging situations and dealt with workplace stress. At the same time, the pandemic has raised the visibility of respiratory therapists and introduced the profession to a new generation.

“It’s a field where you can really make a difference and one where you can keep growing professionally,” Miller said. “Upon graduation, most RTs work immediately in critical care units caring for the most vulnerable of patients - from premature babies to the elderly.  RTs also work in physician offices, home care, pulmonary rehabilitation, and pulmonary function laboratories, and they may deliver care through telemedicine. More RTs are transitioning to serve as case managers, researchers, educators, and into industry.” 

Respiratory therapy programs in general are largely focused on the care and treatment of adults with respiratory issues, which makes sense because adults make up the majority of those who need RT care.

But infants and children can need respiratory care, too. A unique feature of MGA’s respiratory therapy program is its neonatal track, the only one in Georgia and one of the few in the nation. Primarily developed by Jasmine Brown, director of clinical education for the respiratory therapy program, the neonatal track gives students a chance to specifically train in caring for newborns and small children.

“This gives our students who want to specialize in neonatal care the chance to step into those roles right after they graduate,” Brown said. “We know from working with our community healthcare partners that there is a need for neonatal RTs and I’m thankful we can produce graduates to fill that need.”

MGA offers the Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy and the bachelor’s-level bridge/completion program for RTs with associate’s degrees.

Rehabilitation Science

Rehabilitation science is a broad term that encompasses specific fields such as occupational therapy.  The rehab sciences create strategies to help individuals become more mobile and self-sufficient. Job growth in various rehab science fields varies. In the U.S., job growth for occupational therapy assistants is projected to grow 34 percent between 2020 and 2030.

At MGA, rehabilitation science programs are growing rapidly as well.

“We’re admitting the first cohort to a new Master of Science in Occupational Therapy bridge program in August 2022, pending accrediting agency approval,” said Dr. Betsy McDaniel, chair of MGA’s Department of Rehabilitation Science. “This program will offer currently licensed occupational therapy assistants an affordable option for obtaining a graduate degree in occupational therapy and furthering their professional development and careers.  It is the only bridge program in a public institution in Georgia, making it the most economical choice for students by far.”

As the U.S. population ages, expect ongoing growth in the rehab science job market, McDaniel said.

“In some ways, the next generation of healthcare providers may have an easier time acclimating to the post-COVID environment since they will have come of age during the pandemic,” she added.

In addition to the new master’s program, MGA’s Department of Rehabilitation Science offers the Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitation Science; and the Associate of Science in Occupational Therapy Assistant.


Sources include: Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics

This article appears in the spring 2022 edition of MGA Today magazine.