Respiratory care at JCCC

December 21, 2015

Maggie Chen changed her life plan to return to JCCC to help others

After getting her bachelor’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley, Maggie Chen decided to come back home – not only to her parents but to the place where she grew up: Johnson County County Community College.

Chen is a student in respiratory care, a JCCC program that instructs students to care for patients with breathing problems such as asthma, emphysema or cystic fibrosis.

She became interested in respiratory care after participating in a research project at Berkeley. As part of her biology degree, Chen worked with researchers studying why urban minority children had higher rates of asthma than the general population.

The project had two positive outcomes for Chen. First, she realized that while research was important, it wasn’t her passion. Second, it made her realize she wanted to help care for people instead.

“The decision then was between nursing and respiratory care,” she said.

One boy in her Berkeley study died of asthma, and the feeling of loss contributed to her decision to specialize in respiratory care. “One day he was there, and the next day he wasn’t. People don’t understand the seriousness of asthma…I know I didn’t.”

Going back to move forward

Chen said she gets a lot of questions as to why she would return to a community college after graduating from a prestigious four-year university. But to her, JCCC has always felt like home. She and her parents, living in Indonesia at the time, moved to Kansas when Chen was just a toddler. Their very first stop after the airplane landed in Kansas City was to check out their new school – JCCC.

Both parents attended classes, and Chen grew up in the childcare center on campus. She spent every Sunday with her parents in the Billington Library.

Eventually her parents got degrees and moved on to master-level study, and Chen returned to JCCC as an Olathe East High School student to earn 10 credits in College Now

Those credits, along with other advanced-placement credits, allowed her to graduate Berkeley in only three years. Still, even after a successful internship in the Bay Area, Chen decided to come back to Olathe.

“For one thing, I realized that if I stayed in the Bay Area, there was no way I could afford it,” she said. “And Berkeley has a lot going for it. There are definite benefits in going to Berkeley, but there are other consequences, too.”

For example, she contemplated taking a computer science class. The problem was that hundreds of students were enrolled, she said, and on the first class meeting, she found herself lucky to be standing near the classroom’s fire exit.

“Students were sitting on the steps, standing where they could find room,” she said. The professor suggested to them (without overtly saying so) that they shouldn’t come to class due to fire-code violations.

Conversely, when she came back to JCCC, her microbiology class had less than 20 people. “I loved it,” she said.

Respiratory care responds to students

The respiratory care program will be undergoing changes to respond to student feedback. Renee Portmann, director of the respiratory care program, said the program has been streamlined so it’s more accessible to working adults. In fact, the average age of respiratory care students in the classroom this year is 33.

Previously, classes started early; clinicals ran late. “I had students tell me, ‘I can’t even work anymore,’ and financial aid sometimes didn’t come in for the rent payment,” she said.

“This revised program gives students a chance to balance school and life challenges without sacrificing time needed to be successful as a student.

The number of program credits, previously 71 to 76, is now only 65.  Prerequisites (college classes which must be taken before students may be accepted in the program) dropped from 34 to only 13 – with the remainder of the classes needed for an AAS degree integrated into the program along with the respiratory classes.  As a result, the program moved from six semesters to a five-semester program.

“We’re trying to get rid of barriers to enroll in the program,” since respiratory therapists are in demand at hospitals and clinics, and salaries average over $50,000, Portmann said.

Check online for admissions criteria and application instructions. Applications will be accepted for the fall 2016 start date through Jan. 29, 2016.