Affectionately referred to as the “COVID class,” the class of Polk State College’s December 2021 Radiography program spent nearly the entire duration of their program processing the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually, the group of 13 overcame numerous challenges to pass the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) national certification exam with a score of 100%, beating the state and national averages.
Students who complete the two-year program earn an Associate in Science in Radiologic Technology and are prepared for a career in medical imaging. Over the course of the program, students spend nearly 2,000 hours in local healthcare facilities.
“There was a time when I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it,” said Gisselle Dominguez, a member of the Class of 2021. “I’m a hands-on person and this is a hands-on career. I didn’t know how to do it.”
The pandemic begins
With classes starting in January 2020, students were in class for just over a month at the start of the pandemic. At the height of COVID-19, Polk State switched from in-person classes to online classes. Not only could the students not meet in person, but it was also not possible to get their clinical time due to restrictions at clinical sites and uncertainty about the coronavirus.
“I told them that if they wanted to leave, nobody would blame them,” said program director Beth Luckett. “All the students stayed. The college administration has been extremely supportive.”
For about five months, the students were unable to do their clinical work. Luckett and Jaime Selph, clinical education coordinator for the radiography program, were tasked with finding a way to move forward.
“It was challenging,” Selph said. “The students did really well. The clinical sites worked with us as best they could. It was amazing that these students graduated on time. Passing with 100% was the icing on the cake. They pushed as hard as any class I’ve ever seen.”
Rather than forcing students to delay graduation, they worked with college administrators to expedite some of the clinical trials.
“You wasted time,” Luckett said. “When the facilities allowed them, they begged for an opportunity. They knew what to do.”
Dominguez had previously worked as a restaurant manager, banker and animal handler when her sister, a nurse, suggested she pursue a career in healthcare. Despite the uncertainty of the situation and the future, Dominguez said she never wavered.
“It was a no-brainer for me,” she said. “I changed careers several times and was determined to stick with it.”
Try along the way
Kari Thompson is another member of the Class of 2021 and served as a tutor. When the pandemic began, she anticipated that the class’s absence from in-person study and the clinics would be brief.
“None of us knew what we were getting into,” she said. “Like the rest of the world, we thought it was only two weeks. That turned into almost six months.”
In addition to the difficulties that the students were confronted with during their studies, most of them also had to contend with personal challenges. Seeing how hard they worked through the struggles gave staff perspective and motivation to help in any way they could.
“No matter what we threw at them, nobody flinched,” Luckett said. “I’m proud of them for what they have endured on the program and in their personal lives and to pass 100% is remarkable. It was the most unique experience. You never refused. They cried, but they never refused.”
About halfway through the program, in January 2021, Thompson was diagnosed with breast cancer. She started chemotherapy in May but has continued throughout.
“For me, I didn’t want that to be a reason to resign,” Thompson said. “I needed this[program]to face my personal struggle. At the same time, I knew that everything happens for a reason.”
Thompson’s cancer is currently in remission. However, she was far from alone when it came to taking on challenges.
“Some of them have lost loved ones to COVID,” Selph said. “They had to fight to stay afloat. We are very proud of them and happy for them as they continued to work through it.”
Working through, Thompson said, is part of what it means to be a healthcare worker.
“We all really enjoy helping people,” Thompson said of her classmates. “We got into this business because it’s important to us. We knew COVID wouldn’t go away. When you work in healthcare, you face infectious diseases.”
A bond is formed
During the pandemic, the class found ways to keep in touch. They put together a group chat to support each other and met via Zoom. They were allowed to meet in person once a week in groups of four or fewer.
“We didn’t want anyone to get frustrated or stop,” Thompson said. “We all started together and we all wanted to finish together. We were all super motivated.”
Over the course of the two years, the classmates formed an unusual bond despite spending very little time together physically. Thompson isn’t sure that would have been the case under normal circumstances.
“I don’t think people always realize what they have until it’s taken away from them,” Thompson said. “I don’t think we would have been that close if it weren’t for the pandemic. We all wanted to support each other and just be there for each other.”
Luckett noted that the radiography program, which accepts up to 20 students, tends to have a diverse student base. Students may be fresh out of high school, but many have worked in other fields. Still, the bond was palpable.
“We all had the same goal,” Dominguez said. “When I completed a four-year course, everyone kind of went their own way. Here it was a single-minded focus. One of the things that brought us together was that we all had to rely on each other.”
Although job placement rates for the 2021 class are currently unofficial, all 13 graduates are currently working in the field as radiology technologists. Dominguez works full-time at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center and part-time at South Florida Baptist Hospital in Plant City. Thompson works for Orlando Health at South Lake Hospital in Clermont. Many students from the class keep in touch.
“The bond — that’s still very evident,” Dominguez said. “Many of us are in constant contact with each other. If we (at work) see or learn something different, exciting or new, we share that with the group.”
Why Polk State?
Established in 1983, the Polk State Radiography Program has had a 100% job placement rate for the past five years. Luckett added that the program’s success rate is typically above the national average.
Students say it’s the staff that makes it special. Thompson and Dominguez each wanted to apply elsewhere before learning about the Polk State program.
“I’d applied to a competitor before and wasn’t accepted, and I was trying to understand why,” Thompson said. “It seemed like other programs didn’t want to help me or tell me what I needed to do to get into the program. I found Beth Luckett’s email and she replied and asked if we could meet in person. I wasn’t a Polk State student, but she was willing to take an hour out of her day to talk to me. She really cared and she didn’t have to.”
Dominguez learned about Polk State’s program less than two weeks before the application deadline. Dominguez made his way to Airside West Center, met Luckett, and was eventually able to complete the application, provide previous credentials, and take any preparatory steps required for admission.
“I was a random student who didn’t even apply to the school,” Dominguez said. “The fact that she came out and spoke to me personally, that stuck with me. That really made an impression.”
For Dominguez, that strong first impression was just the beginning.
“Ms. Luckett and Mrs. Selph worked their butts off trying to figure out how to keep us going,” Dominguez said. “You were phenomenal and just always available. We told Ms. Luckett that she gave her exam 100%.” (pass rate). We did it.”
With a national median salary of $61,000, radiology technologists work in emergency rooms, operating rooms, and intensive care units, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Completion of the radiography program also opens up opportunities to move into other areas such as mammography, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for radiology technologists is projected to increase by 9% from 2020 to 2030.
After her battle with cancer, Thompson plans to do mammograms in the future. She is grateful for who she studied with.
“Mrs. Luckett and Mrs. Selph have been amazing all along and just brilliant leaders. During the pandemic, they cared about how we were as people mentally and physically,” Thompson said. “When I got sick, they did everything to to help. I couldn’t speak more highly of her. I’m proud to say that I’m a Polk State grad, and I’m even prouder of it