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This Is a Laughing Matter

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman will soon open what they believe is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Pam Victor is official president and founder of Happier Valley Comedy, but she prefers the title ‘head of happiness.’ It’s effective, and she likes it, and as the founder, she said picking her title is one of the rewards of her job. The far bigger reward, though, is changing people’s lives — just as hers was changed — through improvisation.

Pam Victor refers to it affectionately as simply ‘the experiment,’ or, more formally, the ‘can-I-make-a-living-doing-what-I-love experiment.’

It was undertaken back in the summer of 2014, and the premise was pretty simple. Victor was going to see if she could make $16,000 a year — the poverty level for a family of two back then — through a business based on improvisation.

She was confident — well, sort of — that she would meet or surpass that threshold, but at the start, she was already thinking about the great blog post she would have if she didn’t.

“‘An artist can’t even break the poverty line,’ or something like that, is what I would have written,” Victor recalled, adding that she never had to submit that blog post, because she greatly exceeded her goal by teaching improvisation and using it to help professionals and others achieve any number of goals, including one she calls the ability to “disempower failure,” which we’ll hear more about later.

Today, that nonprofit business Victor started, called Happier Valley Comedy, continues to grow while carrying out a simple mission — “to bring laughter, joy, and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world).”

It does this through three business divisions:

• Classes in improvisation. Victor started with one, and there are now eight a week, and there’s a waiting list for some of them;

• Comedy shows, such as the one on June 9 at the Northampton Center for the Arts, featuring the Ha-Has, the comedy group Victor started; and

• Personal and professional growth through use of improvisation, what the company calls its ‘Through Laughter’ program. Victor and her team visit companies, groups, and professional organizations and undertake exercises — usually highly interactive in nature — designed to help bolster everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

It’s not what many people think of when they hear ‘improv’ — people taking to the podium and talking off the cuff (stand-up comedy) or even some of those other things people might conjure up; “we don’t cluck like chickens, and we don’t do ‘trust falls,’” said Victor. People do stand in circles, sometimes, and they do take part in exercises together.

Many of them are designed to address self-confidence and what has come to be known as the ‘impostor syndrome,’ said Victor, adding that this afflicts everyone, not just women, although they often seem especially vulnerable to it.

“I see it in my female colleagues, and I see it stop us from manifesting our successes because we talk ourselves out of success before we even have a chance to get into the ring,” she explained, referring specifically to the voice inside everyone that creates doubt and thoughts of inadequacy.

Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations

With its Through Laughter program, Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations and undertakes exercises designed to boost everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

“The improv exercises help us step into the unknown and step into possibilities,” she went on. “It’s a muscle that we can strengthen, and every time we do it, we strengthen that muscle.”

Meghan Lynch, a principal with the marketing group Six Point Creative, has become a big believer in improv. She was first introduced to it when Victor did a presentation at a women’s leadership group, and Lynch then arranged to have Happier Valley come to her company. There have been several workshops, and as employees are added, Lynch schedules what are known as ‘improv workout sessions.’ Six Point even hires Happier Valley to do improv sessions as the company onboards new clients “to start the relationship off with some momentum,” as she put it.

All three divisions of this business — and the venture as a whole — are set to be taken to a much higher level with the opening of what Victor is sure is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Currently, it has another name — the “dirty vanilla box.” That’s how Victor and business partner Scott Braidman, who takes the twin titles general manager and artistic director, refer to the 1,300-square-foot space being built out at the Mill Valley Commons on Route 9 in Hadley.

There, in a retail center that Victor and Braidman have nicknamed the ‘Play Plaza’ — there’s also a tavern, an Irish dance center, a kung fu studio, and an outfit that grows coral at that location — the partners are outfitting space into classrooms and a performing area with 70 seats.

“This is the answer to a dream, really,” said Braidman as he walked within the space, noting that this will be the first improv club in Massachusetts outside of Boston, and it will enable him to meet a long-time goal of doing essentially what Victor has been doing — making improv a career.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Victor and Braidman about their venture, which is, indeed, a laughing matter — and also a very unique enterprise that is changing businesses, and changing lives, through improvisation.

Getting into the Act

As one might expect, Victor, who takes the title ‘head of happiness,’ uses humor early and often to communicate her points.

Consider this response to the question about why she believes her improvisation classes have caught on to the point where there is that waiting list.

“It’s cheaper than therapy,” she deadpanned, adding quickly that, in many ways, that’s not a joke. Her classes — $22 to $25 for each of eight classes — are much, much cheaper than therapy. And from what she’s gathered, they are just as effective, as we’ll see.

Three years or so later with those classes and the other divisions within Happier Valley Comedy, the experiment is more or less ancient history. The matters at hand now are building out that dirty vanilla box and substantially updating the business plan to reflect everything this facility can do for this nonprofit venture.

Before looking ahead, though, to tell this story right, we first need to look back — about 15 years or so, to be exact.

That’s when the clouds parted, as Victor put it in a piece she wrote about her venture for Innovate 413, and “the Great Goddess of Improv locked me in a fierce tractor beam with songs of love and connection.”

Happier Valley logo

Thus began what can be called a career in improv. But things developed very slowly after that.

Victor took one leap of faith, as she called it, when she founded an improv troupe that played mostly in libraries as fundraisers. And she took another one in 2012 when she summoned the courage to spend five weeks in Chicago studying at the mecca of longform improv, the iO Theater.

She took a third leap, perhaps the biggest, a few years later, when, after the son she had homeschooled for 10 years went off to college, she waged that aforementioned experiment.

“I tried everything,” Victor said when recalling the early days and her efforts to promote improv and its many benefits. “Classes, writing about it, doing corporate-training workshops, speeches — anything I could do, I tried. And sure enough, it worked out.”

By that, she meant that after six months, not a year, she had passed that $16,000 threshold and, more importantly, had gained the confidence to launch a business, officially a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, that would be called Happier Valley Comedy.

“It was one of those experiences where not thinking about the impossibility of it was quite advantageous,” said Victor, using more humor as she put into perspective the experience of launching a business based on improv in a region that was essentially an improv desert. “Ignorance is power in some ways.”

In the beginning, she started with one set of classes — titled “The Zen of Improv” — and doubts about just how many there could eventually be.

“I thought I had run out of the number of people who were interested in taking improvisation in the Pioneer Valley — those 12 people,” she said, adding that some of those original students signed up for more, and, to her surprise, there were many more people willing to take seats than she imagined.

Why? Maybe because it is cheaper than therapy, she told BusinessWest, adding that few of her students actually want to perform improv. They sign up because the sessions are fun and they give participants a chance to experience what Victor calls “the true meaning of community.”

“People seem to find that the classes have a great deal of impact outside of the classroom as well,” she explained. “People regularly tell me that improv has changed their life, and that’s a good feeling. It’s a fantastic community of people, and you get to make a whole bunch of new friends, which is rare as an adult.

“Improv is a team sport,” she went on. “We’re seeking joy, we’re seeking ease, and we’re also seeking how to make our scene partners look good; people learn how to be of service to each other and to the moment, so there’s a lot of mindfulness to it as well.”

As Victor and her team would discover, these improv classes were not only popular and effective, but demographically unique within the improv world in that they were and still are dominated by middle-aged professional women and not the younger men that are the norm.

“We’re the unicorn of improv, or Wonder Woman’s island,” said Victor, adding that she’s not really sure why her classes take on this demographic shape, but she’s clearly proud and quite happy that she doesn’t have the problem most other improv groups have — attracting women.

She would, however, like to attract more men … but that’s another story.

Grin and Bear It

As for the Through Laughter division of the company, it has also enjoyed steady growth, said Victor, adding that Happier Valley Comedy uses improv within that broad realm of personal and professional development to improve people’s lives at home and in the workplace.

And this aspect of her business takes on a number of forms, she said, citing, as just one example, an interactive presentation she’s done with groups such as the Women Business Owners Alliance called “Meet Your Evil Eye Meanie: How the Voice of Unhelpful Judgment Is Getting in Your Way.”

It uses improv exercises and humorous stories to help women identify and disempower their fear-based internal critical voice in order for them better manifest their professional dreams.

“As my comedy hero Tina Fey says, ‘confidence is 10% hard work and 90% delusion,” she noted. “The primary focus of my job is to help people quiet their voices of unhelpful judgment and get to the ‘delusion’ that leads to success.”

And with that, she again referenced the ‘impostor syndrome.’ In her efforts to help people address it, Victor has actually put a name to the problem, or at least to the voice inside people that causes all the trouble.

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy — and arguably a lot more fun.

“We call him ‘Calvin’ — that’s a random name; that’s the voice inside our head that is our evil critic. It’s the voice that’s constantly in our head conjugating ‘to suck’ — as in ‘I suck at this,’ or ‘you suck at this’ — it’s that super-judgmental voice,” she said, referring to things people say to themselves, out loud or under their breath.

“I teach people that voice is a liar,” she went on. “And by naming it, that helps to disempower it a little bit or make it a little more manageable, because that voice is never going to go away — that’s human nature; that’s who we are. But we can use some techniques for quieting it.”

These are improv exercises, she went on, adding that they are designed to address that impostor syndrome and the accompanying fears and doubts and be that team sport she described earlier.

She’s putting together another presentation, a workshop she’s titled “F*ck Your Fear and Trust Your Truth,” a name that speaks volumes about what she wants attendees to do — not just that day, but for the rest of their careers and the rest of their lives.

This is a part of a subcategory within the Through Laughter division devoted to personal growth and female empowerment, she explained, adding that this workshop is being designed to help women use the skills associated with improv to enable them to quiet their judgmental voices and their inner critic so they amplify their truth and speak their mind.

“This will hopefully help women on all fronts, from their personal life to their professional life,” she noted. “Women in leadership roles can hopefully get better at speaking up for themselves and being heard, even women eyeing political positions — they’re calling this ‘the Year of the Woman.’”

Lynch told BusinessWest that the use of improv has been beneficial to Six Point on many levels. It has given employees there a common vocabulary, she said, including the now-common use of the word ‘triangles.’

Explaining it is quite complicated, said both Lynch and Victor, but a triangle essentially describes a relationship between a group of people, especially employees. There are several triangles within a company, and the actions of a specific employee could impact several such relationships. The goal of triangle-related exercises is to make individuals understand how their movements impact such relationships.

“We’ll often start conversations now with ‘let me tell you about my triangles — these are the pressures I’m experiencing — you tell me about yours, and how do we work together to solve this problem?’” said Lynch. “And it’s been a game changer in terms of creating trust and open communication around those, and that’s just one example of adopting that vocabulary into our day-to-day lives in a way that improves communication.”

Both Victor and Braidman believe Happier Valley will be able to introduce more people to the notion of triangles — and many easier-to-comprehend concepts as well — as they build out that vanilla box into an improv club.

The two had been looking for a site for some time, said Braidman, adding that the nonprofit got a huge boost from the most recent Valley Gives program — $26,000, to be exact — that made creation of this new facility possible.

The location is centrally located, he went on — halfway between Amherst and Northampton and on busy Route 9 — and the space is large enough and flexible enough to host classes, performances, workshops, and more.

If all goes according to plan, he said, classes should start there in late June, and Happier Valley comedy shows will commence in August.

Passion Play

Victor told BusinessWest that Braidman will often give her some good-natured grief about her unofficial titles at Happier Valley Comedy and those assigned to other people as well. ‘Head of happiness’ is just one of hers. “Laugh leader’ is another used on occasion, and there are still others that come into play.

“I have my own business, so I get to make up my own titles,” she explained, adding that this is just one of the perks that comes from conducting that experiment, succeeding with it, and, indeed, making a business doing something she loves.

The bigger perk is changing lives, just as hers was changed, through improvisation.

It’s a reward that takes her well above the poverty line, in every way you can imagine.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

The Dream and the Journey

Officials take up ceremonial shovels during the groundbreaking for Hillside Residence on May 18.

Officials take up ceremonial shovels during the groundbreaking for Hillside Residence on May 18.

During their long and sometimes frustrating quest to secure funding for what would eventually be Hillside Residence, the Sisters of Providence never stopped believing the project’s model — blending healthcare and affordable senior housing — was worth fighting for. Now that the development is under way, they are even firmer in that conviction.

As she talked about the long and persistently frustrating quest to secure funding for the project that would come to be called Hillside Residence, Sister Kathleen Popko summed things up by recalling sentiments she expressed at the time — words that blended diplomacy, poignancy, and even a little sarcasm.

“I would tell people, ‘though our progress is slow … I’m making a lot of friends locally, regionally, and nationally,’” she recalled, with a phrase that hinted broadly at how many doors, in a proverbial sense, were knocked on by the Sisters of Providence, which Popko leads as president, as they sought to take a dream off the drawing board.

And also at how important it was to be making those friends.

Indeed, while making all those introductions, Sr. Popko and the other Sisters of Providence were gaining even more resolve as well. And it stemmed from the firm conviction that their unique model for Hillside Residence — the intersection of healthcare and affordable elder housing, if you will — was worth fighting for.

And fight they did, for the better part of eight years, a struggle that was ultimately successful and celebrated, as much as the project itself was, at an elabotate groundbreaking ceremony on May 18.

Fittingly, Sr. Popko, during her turn at the podium that morning, borrowed from St. Francis of Assisi to convey what it took to make that moment a reality.

“The journey is essential to the dream,” she said, invoking St. Francis’s famous quote. “With hindsight, I can see the truth and wisdom in that statement. Our eight-year journey to this moment expanded and sharpened our vision, tested our determination, enlarged our circle of friends, and committed supporters to this initiative. Let us work now to realize the dream.”

That dream, as noted, is to bring innovative, health-integrated, affordable elder housing to a region, and a city (West Springfield) where there is an acknowledged need for it, said Popko.

Elaborating, she said Hillside Residence, a demonstration project, will create 36 affordable rental units to frail elders, who will receive healthcare services from the Mercy LIFE PACE program (program for all-inclusive care for the elderly). Both programs are situated on the same 27-acre campus that was formerly home to Brightside for Families and Children.

And the expectation is that this $10 million project will demonstrate that this is an effective model for bringing needed services to what has historically been an underserved segment of the population, she told BusinessWest, adding that there have attempts to create affordable senior housing, but not in the same, holistic environment that Hillside Residence will create.

“This is innovative in that it will keep frail elders independent,” she explained. “They’ll live in an independent-living facility, but they’ll be supported in a way, on the same campus, that they can access a tremendous array of services and at the same time go home and live independently.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at both the dream and the journey that made Hillside Residence a reality — and why both are worth celebrating.

The Big Picture

When Brightside’s closing was announced in 2009, it left the Sisters of Providence with what amounted to a 27-acre canvas that could be filled in any number of ways, said Sr. Popko.

An architect’s rendering of Hillside Residence.

An architect’s rendering of Hillside Residence.

What made the most sense, she said, was to use the land and existing buildings, part of what’s known collectively as the Hillside at Providence, to help create a broad array of senior-living and senior-care facilities that would complement each other and meet recognized needs within the community.

This was a process that actually started with the conversion of the former Sisters of Providence Mother House into an independent-living and retirement community known as Providence Place in 1999, and it continued with the creation of Mary’s Meadow at Providence, a complex on the Providence Place campus comprised of 10-person houses designed to give elders a place to live in comfort equal to that of a private home. This was the first ‘small-home’ facility, as they have come to be called, in the Bay State.

The process of filling in the canvas at Brightside was accelerated with the creation of Mercy LIFE, a PACE program operated by Mercy Medical Center that provides tightly coordinated care and support designed to help seniors continue to live safely at home and avoid moving into a nursing home, she said.

The 25,000-square-foot facility, located within what was the main administration building for Brightside, includes everything from a medical clinic to a rehab gym to gathering places.

Meanwhile, the remainder of that 78,000-square-foot administration building has been devoted to reuses ranging from hospice care to a home for elder-focused programs administered by the Center for Human Development.

What emerged as a missing piece in the puzzle — and the next dream for the Sisters of Providence — was an affordable senior-living facility, one where the residents could take full advantage of the many programs and services at Mercy LIFE.

Talks for such a facility — and thus that ‘journey’ Sr. Popko described — began in 2011, she said, adding that it took the better of eight years (and work with four different mayors of West Springfield) to secure everything from the proper zoning to the needed funding.

And the latter part of the equation became more difficult when, in 2012, HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, ceased funding for so-called ‘Section 202’ projects, those aimed at expanding the supply of affordable housing with supportive services for the elderly.

“So we had to take a step back and try to look for alternative sources of funding,” said Sr. Popko. “That included private sources and looking at federal grants and so forth.

“And they really weren’t forthcoming at the time,” she went on. “We visited many legislators and congressmen, and we brought in experts to come in and talk about some other concepts we were thinking about. We had people come out here, we visited state offices … we talked to so many people.”

State Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner

State Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner addresses those assembled at the May 18 groundbreaking for Hillside Residence.

Like she said, progress was slow, but she and others were making acquaintances.

“Everybody was very encouraging — they kept saying, ‘go ahead, yes, do this,’” she recalled, adding that the words of encouragement were not backed up with checks.

But the sisters pressed on. They succeeded in getting the property rezoned, and eventually started making progress on funding, thanks in part to a timely visit to Mary’s Meadow by state Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner in April 2016.

“I said, ‘I just need minutes of your time,’” Sr. Popko recalled, adding that she used it to give the secretary a brief overview of the Hillside Residence project and hand her a concept paper of the proposal.

Bonner put the paper in her backpack, but eventually took it out, read it, and became sufficiently intrigued to call Sr. Popko and arrange a meeting to discuss the matter.

“We brainstormed about what could happen,” she recalled, “and also about how we could remove the silos between housing and health services and bring the two closer together.”

Eventually, the sisters were able to cobble funds together for a number of state and federal sources, including the Housing Stabilization Fund, the National Housing Trust Fund, the Housing Innovation Fund program, and the Mass. Rental Voucher Program. Also, private funding was provided by the Sisters of Providence and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and the West Springfield Community Preservation Committee also chipped in toward the price tag, currently pegged at $9.65 million.

The project will focus on serving individuals who are 62 and older, with incomes at 50% of the area median income (AMI) or lower, and whose healthcare needs and housing instability can be optimally addressed by the program, said Sr. Popko, adding that, because the project has secured commitment of state rental subsidies, Hillside Residence participants’ housing costs will be capped at 30% of their income.

And while meeting an immediate need for those twin services — housing and healthcare — the project will be adding to the base of research on the efficiency and effectiveness of the integration of PACE and affordable elder housing.

“This data will assist policy makers, housing developers and managers, and healthcare providers better understand the benefits and operational challenges of an integrated PACE housing model,” said Sr. Popko.

The Next Chapter

As she talked about Hillside Residence, Sr. Popko noted that there is still more of the former Brightside canvas to be filled in.

Indeed, there are several cottages on the property that are roughly 9,000 square feet in size and could be transformed into more housing for the elderly.

“We could have another 50 units on this site, but it will be even more difficult to attain funding for that,” she said, adding that those cottages comprise what would be phase 3 of the work at the Hillside at Providence and the proverbial ‘next dream.’

As for the one currently coming to fruition, she said, again, that St. Francis of Assisi was right.

“Our journey of eight years was probably essential for realizing this dream,” she said in conclusion. “Because we’ve brought together people from the state level, we’ve brought together funders, legislators, and people within the community of West Springfield, to a point where they all want this to happen. That’s what has brought us to this moment.”

That, and a firm determination never to let the dream die.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

Changing the Landscape

By George O’Brien

Erasmo Ruiz says he has found a profession that offers stability, flexibility, and a wide range of options.

Erasmo Ruiz says he has found a profession that offers stability, flexibility, and a wide range of options.

To say that Erasmo Ruiz took a circuitous route to the nurse-pinning ceremony at Springfield Technical Community College late last month would be an understatement. A huge understatement.

Now 34, the father of two teenagers — and the first one in his family to attend college — studied engineering at UMass. But things “didn’t go as expected,” he told BusinessWest, noting that he was into partying and girls far more than he was into his studies and eventually had to drop out.

From there, he went into the Navy, specializing in electronics. But he didn’t finish his enlistment because his father got into trouble with the law and was incarcerated; Ruiz needed to get home and help support his family.

He would join the workforce, trying his hand at everything from manufacturing to time as a clerk in the Post Office. Then, by chance, he got a job as a medical assistant working with a group of neurosurgeons at Baystate Medical Center.

“It just made sense at the time to take things to the next level,” he said of his decision to pursue a nursing degree. “With the guidance of nurses and other medical professionals, I chose this career.”

A circuitous route to be sure, but Ruiz found himself at that pinning ceremony, persevering through a two-course of study that challenged him on many levels. And many men are doing the same thing.

Well, let’s say many more men, and even a phrase like that needs to be put into perspective.

Yes, there are more men getting into nursing these days, at least compared to 40 or even 20 years ago, but the numbers still don’t approach that of women, said Karen Aiken, a Nursing professor at Holyoke Community College for the past 17 years, eight as chairman of the department.

“The labor bureau will tell you, and make it sound really great, that since 1970, the number has tripled,” she said of men in the profession. “But the numbers are so small, that doesn’t mean much; overall, I think the percentage [of all nurses who are male) has risen from 2.9% to just over 9%, so those are still small numbers.”

We’ll get into the numbers and the reasons they’re higher than they were, but not as high they as perhaps they should be, later. First, let’s look at some of the men who are getting into nursing.

Most are not taking what would be called the traditional route, right out of high school, but then again, many women don’t take that path either.

Andy Bean, 38, who graduated from Westfield State University this spring, worked in sales for a trucking company, sitting in front of a computer all day ordering parts for clients. He was laid off once when the economy took a turn for the worse and decided that he wasn’t going to let that happen to him again.

So he segued into healthcare and eventually a nursing program. Actually, several of them. He’s been working toward a degree in healthcare for seven years, by his estimate, and he’s looking to make a home in the emergency room at Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield, where he’s already spent considerable time as a technician and student nurse.

Andy Bean, seen here in the ER at Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield

Andy Bean, seen here in the ER at Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield, likes the fast pace of that setting and wants to start his career in nursing there.

Meanwhile, Nick Labelle, another member of STCC’s class of 2018, now 36, worked in everything from food preparation to sheet-metal fabrication to real estate before getting a job as a counselor in a substance-abuse clinic. It was that last stop that convinced him that he liked helping people and working in a healthcare setting.

But some have taken more of a direct route. People like Brendan McKee from North Attleboro, another recent graduate of WSU. He said that, unfortunately, he spent a lot of time in hospitals in his youth visiting sick family members, and quickly realized he wanted to be part of that environment. Nursing, he said, was his first choice.

Overall, there are many reasons why nursing has become the first choice, or the second, or the fifth, for men, said Lisa Fugiel, director of the Nursing program at STCC, listing everything from solid pay to the availability of jobs as Baby Boomers retire, to the flexibility within the profession and the wide variety of options available to those who choose it.

But for many, it comes down to those same ingredients that bring women into nursing, she said — compassion, caring, and a desire to help others.

For this issue and its focus on nursing education, BusinessWest interviewed several men on their way to joining the profession (the licensing exam is their next challenge). Collectively, their stories help explain why the landscape within nursing — gender-wise, anyway — is changing.

Course Change

Bean told BusinessWest that he likes the pace of work in the ER and the fact that he’s always moving in that setting.

“That’s a big change from when I was just sitting in front of that computer all day,” he said. “That’s one of the things I hated the most about my old job. It just didn’t feel like a good fit for me anymore.”

But pace of work — and fit — are just two of many reasons why there are more men hearing their names called at those nurse-pinning ceremonies, said both Aiken and Fugiel as they discussed the changing demographics in their classrooms.

They both spoke of greater acceptance of male nurses in general and among women receiving care, and, on the flip side of the equation, more acceptance of the profession as a career option among men. And both halves of the equation are important.

“Women are more comfortable with women, and in some areas especially,” Fugiel noted. “But overall, there is more acceptance of men now.

“And we’re seeing a steady increase when it comes to men getting into the profession,” she went on, noting that this is reflected in the numbers of men in the STCC program; there were nine in this year’s class of 74, roughly double the total from when she started 15 years ago.

There are many reasons for this, said Fugiel and Aiken, listing solid pay and benefits, stability (an important consideration given anxiety about many professions in an age of ever-advancing technology), a host of opportunities, and a wide array of specific areas to get into, from critical care to medical-surgical nursing to behavioral health.

“All the students talk about how there are so many options in nursing, which is one of the things that’s so enticing about the profession, whether it’s male or female,” said Fugiel. “Just look at all the options in an acute-care setting — pediatrics, maternity, ER, ICU, med-surg, and mental health — but there’s also community nursing, nursing infomatics, and managed care.

“And there’s stability,” she went on. “A lot of our nurses are getting older, and that translates into opportunities and stability.”

While it’s good for men to be getting into the profession, given its many rewards, it is also good for the profession, the healthcare community, and society in general, to have men as nurses, said Aiken.

“As an instructor and as a seasoned nurse, I believe that that the more men we can get into nursing, the better,” she explained. “It makes it a rounded profession, and it makes the care more rounded.”

Elaborating, she said men can and often do bring a different perspective to the work of caring for people in need.

“Nurses that are female think one way, and our society doesn’t give men a lot of credit for compassion and caring,” she told BusinessWest. “When these men come into nursing, they come in for a reason — they have that compassion and want to care for people.

“A large number of men who enter our program have been out in the workforce and are either changing professions or are looking to be caring professionals,” she went on. “And they bring so much with them when they come in.”

Getting into the profession is difficult for many, she said, and perhaps more difficult than for many women because men are still traditionally the breadwinners in many families, and, therefore, it is difficult to quit work completely or go to school part-time to earn a nursing degree.

Lisa Fugiel says society is becoming more accepting of male nurses

Lisa Fugiel says society is becoming more accepting of male nurses, and, likewise, men are becoming more accepting of careers in the nursing field.

“The commitment, the education, is more than a full-time job,” said Aiken, adding that men often enter a program not fully understanding what they’re getting into and how they’re going to manage that commitment given their other responsibilities, and that’s why many struggle to get to the finish line or never get there.

Labor of Love

As for those that do, well, interviews with several men graduating this year provide solid evidence that men are more open to a career in nursing — and for all those reasons listed above, from the stability to the flexibility; from the nature and pace of the work to the ability to work with people.

“A big factor for me was all the options we have — you can do anything with this,” Ruiz said of that diploma he’s earned. “Also, in terms of looking out for my family, that was also part of it. The demand is there; there’s a nursing shortage.”

Stability was also a big consideration for Bean, who, as noted, had been laid off once and was looking for firmer ground career-wise. He was also looking for something more rewarding and with opportunities to do some ladder-climbing.

He had taken a few EMT courses, and, after returning to his job with the trucking company after being laid off, found it lacking in many ways,

“So I quit my job, and with the support of my wife, I went back to school to get my nursing degree,” he explained. “I found that, with nursing, there were so many avenues to go down; if one didn’t fit, you could find another one that did fit.”

As noted, he’s been going to school, part-time or full-time, for seven years now. It’s been a struggle at times, but he kept his eyes on the prize awaiting him.

“I was taking classes while working, then quitting and going back to full-time, then working again quite a bit in the emergency room while going to school full-time,” he said. “It’s been a long road, and I’m happy to be done with it.”

Job satisfaction was also a mostly missing ingredient for Labelle, who tried to find it, without much success, in fields ranging from hospitality to selling houses. He found much more of it working in that substance-abuse clinic, but desired an even higher level.

“I wanted a career that would directly impact patient or client care,” he explained. “I did a variety of career assessments, and found that nursing was something that seemed to suit me with regard to compassionate care of client needs, and also something that would be challenging.

“I needed a job that would really challenge me, and I was looking for stability as well,” he went on. “And nursing really fit that criteria. It was a very careful decision.”

As it was for Brendan McKee, who, as noted, didn’t segue into nursing; it was his first choice.

“I did spend a lot of time in hospitals with sick family members,” he recalled. “And I got to see how the nurses worked and took care of my family. It left a really good impression on me.”

He entered Westfield State out of high school, and, like all nursing students, was exposed to a number of different and intriguing paths within the profession. One of them was work in the ICU, and that’s where he is slated to work, at Baystate Medical Center, this fall.

“I like the acuity of it — I enjoy being in that demanding of an environment,” he explained. “I’m the kind of person who runs well when there’s a lot to do and there’s a faster-paced environment.”

A second reason for choosing the ICU, said McKee, is that he eventually wants to work in anesthesia, and the ICU is the “gateway,” as he called it, to that specialty, just as the nursing degree itself is the gateway to a seemingly endless range of career paths within healthcare.

Making a Difference

Ruiz, like all those we spoke with, said he’s taking things one step at a time right now. That means his focus is on passing the licensing exam, which he’ll tackle in the next few months.

After that? He has a comfort level on the “neuro side,” as he called it, but he’s also willing to explore.

“I grew up in Springfield, and I would love to work with the community,” he told BusinessWest, adding that one of his rotations while at STCC was at the High Street Clinic, located in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. “I think I could make a difference in a center like that, but I’m not really sure that’s what I want — there are lots of options.”

With that, he summed up why more men are getting into a profession long dominated by women. They want to make a difference, and they’re becoming more accepting of a profession that allows them to do just that.

The numbers of men are not rising quickly or dramatically, but the arrow is definitely pointing up. And as Aiken and others noted, that’s good not just for the men taking this career path, but for those they will serve when they reach their destination.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]