Virginia Health Services graduates fourth class of Nurse Aide apprentices

The graduation ceremony Thursday looked a little different.

Fourth class graduates Virginia Health Services apprenticeship program

Apprentice graduation was streamed on Zoom and had limited in-person attendance.

The hybrid ceremony was streamed on Zoom, with limited in-person attendance at Virginia Health Services’ Employment, Enrichment, Education (EEE) Center in Port Warwick.

It was done to minimize risk, given rising COVID cases in the community. Each graduate was allowed one in-person attendee.

The eight apprentices graduated from Care Assistants to Nurse Aides following a vigorous classroom and clinical “boot camp.”

Six will work in Virginia Health Services facilities before taking their state certification exam to be CNAs.

The graduates are: Lindsey Valdivia (valedictorian), Maiah Banks (salutatorian), Regina Benson, Latoria Cofield, Shavonte Gary, Jessica Johnson, Shalayia Johnson and Michael Polite.

The camaraderie at every graduation is always evident – these students have spent a lot of time doing hard work together – and there are always heartfelt moments.

None more so Thursday than when the graduates added a surprise ending to the ceremony for instructor Nora Gillespie. As her solo last class before she (semi) retires, they walked out with a “Happy Retirement” banner, gifts and cake.

A fifth class – with students at Walter Reed Convalescent and Rehabilitation Center and the EEE – begins next week. Gillespie will teach her cohort at the EEE with a new instructor, handing off full-time teaching responsibilities before retiring.

The graduates are: Lindsey Valdivia (valedictorian), Maiah Banks (salutatorian), Regina Benson, Latoria Cofield, Shavonte Gary, Jessica Johnson, Shalayia Johnson and Michael Polite.

Virginia Health Services CEO Mark Klyczek addresses graduates.

Virginia Health Services CEO Mark Klyczek addresses the graduates Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

Start of the journey

Virginia Health Services President and CEO Mark Klyczek opened the ceremony with remarks, congratulating the graduates.

“This is an important step in your career journey,” he said, “but it isn’t your only one. … There are so many options in healthcare today. …

“Go down the path that you think will get you the furthest in the long haul.”

Gillespie said it was an “intense journey” to get to graduation. The class has to get through 14 tests and learn and execute 22 skills.

“You were all up to the task,” she said. “You all said on the first day you had the heart and compassion to do this, and you demonstrated it in clinicals.”

The class did its clinical work at York Convalescent and Rehabilitation Center.

The graduates

Fourth class graduates Virginia Health Services apprenticeship program

Instructor Nora Gillespie hugs student Michael Polite.

Gillespie is never speechless when it comes to celebrating her students. She piles on the platitudes because the students earn them. She is very proud of the students she instructs.

Benson, Gillespie said, found her focus and “knocked clinicals out of the park.”

Cofield comes from a family of Virginia Health Services team members. She “glowed on the unit” during clinicals, Gillespie said. She also received Gillespie’s heart superlative, which goes to the student who gives their all in the clinical environment. Cofield “beamed,” Gillespie said. “It made me speechless.”

Gary, who is moving with her family to Texas, “talks fast and was in it to win it.” Her instruction will carry over to apply to take the certification exam in Texas.

Jessica Johnson “sat up front, center and gave 100%,” Gillespie said, adding, “You said from the start it’s in your heart and in your blood to do this.”

Shalayia Johnson didn’t let anything stop her from being in class and getting the work done, Gillespie said.

Fourth class graduates from Virginia Health Services apprenticeship program

Salutatorian Maiah Banks receives her certificate.

Polite was “determined to be successful,” she said. He earned her clinical superlative. “There was no attitude. It was always, ‘I’m on it, Ms. Nora.’ The Residents loved you.”

Banks, the salutatorian, was accepted to and started nursing school in the RN program at ECPI while finishing her class. Gillespie said she “thrived in the clinical environment.” The class, Gillespie said, set Banks up to be “an excellent nurse.”

Fourth class graduates Virginia Health Services apprenticeship program

Valedictorian Lindsey Valdivia receives her certificate from instructor Nora Gillespie and VHS CEO Mark Klyczek.

Valedictorian honors grandmother

Valedictorian Lindsey Valdivia sat in the back, Gillespie said. “Her heart is pretty amazing.”

She had perfect attendance, and top marks in class and clinicals. She also, Gillespie said, “is an outstanding individual.” She offered words of encouragement to her classmates, got snacks when the class ran out and made sure the students who had to sit out a few days after possible COVID exposure didn’t get behind.

“I’m glad to have met you,” Gillespie said. “You all benefited from what (Valdivia) did.”

Fourth class graduates Virginia Health Services apprenticeship program

Valedictorian Lindsey Valdivia honored her late grandmother wearing a scrub top with her image on it. “I know she’s with me here,” she said.

Her comments were met with applause and agreement.

Valdivia’s grandmother, who she was very close to, passed away a little over a week before graduation.

“So I decided to bring her with me,” Valdivia said, pointing to her scrub top with an image of her. “I know she’s here with me.”

“Your grandmother would be very proud of who you are,” Gillespie said.

Valdivia thanked Virginia Health Services for the opportunity in her valedictorian remarks.

“It encourages a lot of people to go further in their careers and their lives,” she said. “They made us realize our value.”

She recommended no matter what, finish what you start and “whatever you do, do it to the best you can.”

Valdivia said she got into healthcare because she saw what aging had done to her grandparents and she wanted to be an asset to others’ families dealing with aging loved ones.

Turning to Gillespie, she said, “And we couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. … She made sure we understood what she taught us. She was very patient and kind. She cared about us.”

Fourth class graduates Virginia Health Services apprenticeship program

The class carried in a retirement banner to celebrate instructor Nora Gillespie.

Retirement surprise!

The graduates stole the show at the end, rendering Gillespie speechless. To honor her impending retirement, they carried out a banner, gifts and a cake.

Fourth class graduates Virginia Health Services apprenticeship program

Instructor Nora Gillespie was rendered speechless by the retirement cake from her students.

“I’ve been trying to retire (for years),” she said, “but I keep coming back because I love what I do. I think I was put here for a reason … and it’s going to be a difficult thing to let go of.”

She had to take a minute to compose herself and thank the students.

“You’re my last solo class, and I will carry you with me always,” she said.

Apprenticeship program

Six of the graduates will continue working as Nurse Aides with Virginia Health Services at Northampton, James River, The Newport and Coliseum convalescent and rehabilitation centers. They will be able to take advantage of the exam prep offered by VHS’ education team ahead of taking their certification exams.

Previous cohorts graduated in April, June and July.

There have been 40 enrollees in the apprenticeship program since its launch in March. The VHS earn-as-you-learn apprenticeship program is part of the Healthcare Apprenticeship Extension Program, which is partially funded by a grant from the Department of Labor.

Learn more about the program here.

Applications to the program are accepted on a rolling basis. To apply, visit our job listing.


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