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Nursing Education Pioneers Retiring from OCtech

July 20, 2017

From left, Connie Goff, Kay Blackwell and Connie Varn pose for a photo during their retirement party in May at OCtech.

For more than three decades, Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College’s Associate Degree Nursing program has produced some of the best nurses in the state. In May, the ADN program – along with the college’s prestigious health science programs – said goodbye to three women who have dedicated countless hours to the success of their students and the healthcare profession in general.

Connie Varn, Connie Goff and Kay Blackwell may have officially retired, but the mark they have left in the hearts of all who have worked with, been taught by and know them will remain long after they are gone.

“The nursing program at OCtech has had a long history of success, and that success has mostly to do with the faculty who’ve committed themselves both to the program and to the students who aspire to be nurses,” President Dr. Walt Tobin said. “As we celebrate the retirement of these three outstanding nursing faculty, it makes me proud when I think about how they’ve been able to promote a culture of excellence and professionalism that’s impacted the entire college.”

‘A fantastic career’

You could say nursing is in Connie Varn’s blood.

“My mother was one of 10 children and one of six girls, and all but one of the girls was a nurse,” Varn recalled. “Every night, her shoes were polished and sitting on the back of the toilet drying, and her shoestrings were washed and on the towel rack drying. Her uniform was hung on the door with all of her nursing pins on her lapel, and her pens and scissors and everything else was in her pockets. All she had to do was slip into her uniform in the morning.

“She was the epitome of a professional nurse.”

After graduating from Lower Richland High School in Columbia, Varn entered the University of South Carolina and majored in special education. However, she changed course after her freshman year and entered the college’s associate degree nursing program. She completed the program in 1974.

“I didn’t want to be a nurse because my mother was a nurse, but it was a calling for me,” the retired ADN program coordinator said.

Varn immediately went to work fulltime as a labor and delivery nurse while going to school part time for her bachelor’s degree, which she received from USC in 1979. In 1988, she earned her master’s degree in nursing from USC.

OCtech’s ADN program began in fall 1982, and Varn initially taught a few summer courses and filled in for the practical nursing program as needed. When a fulltime ADN faculty spot opened in January 1984, she took it and has been at the college ever since.

Varn completed her tenure at OCtech as the college’s third-longest-serving faculty member and the longest-serving faculty member in the Division of Nursing and Health Science.

“I have been at OCtech for every ADN pinning ceremony,” she said. “We had maybe 20 or 30 students in the beginning, and now we admit 100 students into the program. We’ve always had outstanding NCLEX pass rates.”

The program’s success and continued growth is due in part to its amazing faculty, who encourage and support each other and their students, Varn said.

“We pride ourselves in our graduates having the skills and knowledge to be successful and provide safe care for their patients,” she said. “Our job is for our students to be the very best nurses they can be. It’s a rigorous program, and the standards are high.”

Through the years, Varn has taught all of the ADN courses except psychiatric and mental health nursing. She said recruiters often remark about how prepared OCtech nursing graduates are to enter the workforce from day one.

“That just reinforces what we do and how we do it,” she continued. “Students don’t realize how much goes into learning how to be a nurse, and the time it takes for them to dedicate to studying and practicing those skills. It’s always so exciting to see students go from scared to death on the first day of class to walking across the stage to get their nursing pin or diploma with the confidence that they’ve got this.

“Some students fall short, but we’re always encouraging and supportive of those students and try to send them on a different pathway to success.”

A strength of OCtech’s ADN program is that during clinical rotations, students get acquainted with a variety of healthcare settings in which they could work. Varn is especially proud of the pediatric summer rotation offered to nursing students at Camp Burnt Gin, a summer camp for children with physical disabilities and chronic illnesses in Wedgefield.

“Connie Goff and I talked with the director of Camp Burnt Gin and established that partnership about 20 years ago,” she said. “Our students are the only nursing students from any program in the state of South Carolina who go and work at that camp in the summer. It’s an awesome experience.”

While Varn has seen changes in the admissions process, buildings and technology at OCtech over the years, what hasn’t changed is what it takes to be a good nurse.

“This is not about money,” she said. “You’re taking care of people at their worst. Nurses have to have compassion. They need to think critically and be able to make life-and-death decisions in a moment’s notice. And they need to know how to communicate.

“I still believe that you have to have a calling to be a nurse, because it takes a lot of dedication and commitment to get through this program and be successful.”

It’s a profession that Varn has fully embraced and dedicated herself to. She has been active in the South Carolina Nurses Association over the years and is immediate past-president of the group.

“My husband said to me, when I was bemoaning my retirement, ‘But that’s not who you are.’ And I think, ‘Yes, it is,’” she said. “I have blood, sweat and tears invested in this program and these graduates and these students. They carry a piece of me inside of them, and if only for one split second in time they think something about me and what I’ve taught them, then I live forever. That’s an amazing legacy to have, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“It’s just been a fantastic career.”

The best of both worlds

While other little girls were playing school with their dolls, Connie Goff was setting up a hospital in her grandmother’s pantry for hers.

“I played nurse. I even had pretend IVs because I saw that at the hospital,” she said. “My grandmother and grandfather were in the hospital on numerous occasions, and I wasn’t afraid to go visit them or go to the nursing home to see people.”

Till grew up on her family’s farm on Cameron Highway. Her father, Lewis Till Sr., was a farmer who attended the tool and die journeyman program through OCtech and Smith Corona Corp. He later served as an adjunct instructor in OCtech’s tool and die program.

Goff’s childhood dream came true when she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from USC in 1980 and started working at the Regional Medical Center in the newborn nursery. While there, she met an OCtech instructor who encouraged her to try teaching.

“I would help the students a lot in the nursery,” Goff said. “I enjoyed assisting them when they came through our area.”

In 1985, she began working at OCtech as an adjunct and started a temporary full-time position at the college in 1989. Goff has two master’s degrees – one in nutrition from South Carolina State University and the other in nursing from USC. While earning those degrees, she worked part time as an instructor before taking a full-time faculty position in 1992. She retired as the ADN freshman-level program coordinator.

In addition to her duties at the college, Goff helped revise chapters for a pediatric textbook through USC professor Dr. Sandra Frick Helms, and penned nutrition text and test questions. During her time at OCtech, Goff also served as editor for the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing self-study. “I’ve always enjoyed writing,” she said.

But nursing is her first love, and it’s something that Goff has seen change quite a bit since she got her start in the profession more than three decades ago.

“It was hard to adjust to at first, but I don’t know what we would do without electronic records now,” she said. “I remember back when we didn’t even wear gloves. We didn’t think twice about it. We gave injections without gloves. And we had no sharps containers. The emphasis on safety has drastically improved because we have gained so much knowledge about the transmission of diseases.”

Goff said being a nursing instructor has allowed her to enjoy the best of both worlds.

“I get to deal with students and watch them as they grow and learn, and I get to be with patients at the hospital during our clinical rotations,” she said. “Seeing students be successful makes you feel good about what you do – especially those students who people didn’t think could make it. There are a lot of good programs around the state, but ours really takes pride in truly caring for our students. It’s nice to see how our graduates flourish and grow in their profession, especially when I see them taking care of me or my family.”

One of Goff’s daughters, Sarah Beth Williams, graduated from OCtech’s ADN program in 2012.

“She did it all on her own, getting into the program and everything,” Goff said. “I didn’t even know she was applying. I found out when she was accepted. I was very proud of her.”

The nursing faculty, staff and students are so much like a family that a loss can be devastating. Goff recalled a student whose obituary she kept hanging on a display board filled with other precious memories in her office.

“She was pregnant, and she went on Christmas holiday. There were complications, and she and her baby both passed away on Christmas day,” Goff said. “I’ll never forget telling her goodbye right before the holidays. Ever since then, I’ve always signed my emails ‘Take care,’ because you never know when it may be the last time that you see someone.”

Goff said she will miss all of the relationships she has formed through the years working at the college.

“Kay Blackwell has been like a sister to me in some ways and a mother to me in other ways,” Goff said. “She’s a peacemaker among everybody. People can take care of job duties, but there are some people who possess that special people interaction that can never be replaced. She is truly a unique individual.”

“I’ve always loved nursing, and I’ve had to grow with it,” she continued. “When I went to OCtech to work, I had only worked in the newborn nursery. OCtech really helped me to grow into a nurse who can work in a variety of environments, and I am very grateful for that.”

Goff won’t be completely gone from the campus upon retirement, as she will still teach two nutrition classes as an adjunct in the fall. But she and her husband will have more time for family, camping and mission work.

“My heart is in missions,” said Goff, who has been on a mission trip to Kenya and several in the Southeastern U.S. “My husband and I bought a travel trailer and we’ve started camping. I can see us doing some ministry in campgrounds or traveling and doing ministry with church groups in the United States. Wherever the Lord leads us, we will go.”

‘It was like finding a dream’

Kay Blackwell feels blessed that she got to realize her dream of becoming a nurse.

“My father worked in logging and would come home in the evening with scrapes and scratches. I would love to be his nurse and apply ointments and bandages,” she said. “Nursing was something I always wanted to do, but I was married after high school, so that didn’t ever seem to be a reality for me.

“After 17 years, my marriage ended. I had not worked during that time, so I had to make a new life with my son. There was a practical nursing program in Walterboro hospital at that time, and I finished the one-year program and worked for a couple of years to get my general education courses. I had heard good things about Orangeburg, so I applied.”

Blackwell graduated in 1985 as a member of OCtech’s second ADN class, but she didn’t stop there. She immediately went on to receive a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing from the Medical University of South Carolina.

“I went to school during the week and worked on the weekends in the hospital,” she said. “It took me 10 years to pay all of my student loans back, but it was worth every penny. I was motivated and studied hard.

“I never could have foreseen that a door like that would open for me. It was like finding a dream and wanting to be the best at it that you could be.”

Blackwell remarried during that time, and as she was finishing up her master’s degree, her husband, Jim, got an opportunity to go back into the military.

“We moved to Hawaii, and that was a highlight in my life,” Blackwell said. “That’s when I began teaching nursing. We were there for four years and afterwards, continued with several moves over the years. Each place I went, I found a job in teaching. I had the opportunity to work with so many talented, dedicated people with different philosophies of nursing. I learned so much.”

In 2000, when she and her husband returned to the area, Blackwell became an ADN instructor at OCtech.

“I started as a medical-surgical instructor,” she said. “Mrs. Delura Knight had been a teacher of mine and so had Connie Varn, so I knew them well. I always had the utmost respect for them. Everybody was warm and welcoming.

“When Mrs. Knight left, she was dean and program coordinator for nursing. When I became dean, Connie Varn became the program coordinator. We worked together to separate job duties. It was a smooth transition. We have worked very well together, both loving the ADN program.”

With her new title, Blackwell became head of not only the college’s nursing program, but its many health science programs, as well.

“I’ve always had a lot of respect for the radiologic technicians, respiratory therapists, physical therapist assistants, medical assistants and patient care technicians,” she said. “Our health programs have always been high quality. When I took this job, it gave me a wonderful opportunity to work with those program coordinators and faculty to grow their programs. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

“There is a need for all of healthcare. Nursing is only one piece of it.”

Blackwell said much of the division’s success is due to the support of the college’s administration, namely Dr. Tobin and Vice President for Academic Affairs Donna Elmore.

“They are a great part of the strength of OCtech,” she said. “Nobody could have been more supportive of our programs. They are visionaries who have a commitment to excellence.”

Of course, Blackwell said she will miss the students. “They have been the greatest reward,” she said. “What more could you ask for in life than to have a job that has afforded the opportunity to make a difference in lives? I would hope that everybody has the opportunity to go away from a lifetime of work feeling so positive about it.”

Making a difference is the reason Blackwell’s granddaughter, Cierra Bell, decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. Bell graduated from OCtech’s ADN program in May.

“As my journey seems to have ended, hers is beginning. That’s a special thing,” Blackwell said. “But I think the most special piece of it all is it’s not just her – it’s all of the students over the years. You share more than just nursing education with them. You share compassion and caring, and they’re with you in the classroom and clinical settings and discover what a nurse should be. It’s like a part of my philosophy of nursing will always be with them. And that’s really gratifying.”

Blackwell said she considers herself blessed to have worked at a place with such a loving and supportive work family.

“We all have the same goals for our students, the same quality of instruction and the same pride in the college,” she said. “I will miss the people who come together to make it happen at OCtech.

“I am not sure what I want to do in retirement. It is more than enough to have had a career that allowed so many to touch my life in such a wonderful and lasting way. I’ll figure retirement out, but if it’s just half as rewarding an experience as I’ve had over these years, I’ll be satisfied.”