Upskill NWA provides training, support for students in medical fields in Northwest Arkansas

SPRINGDALE -- Noelia Banuelos had dreamed of being a nurse, but her immigration status prevented it.

The Upskill NWA program, an initiative of the nonprofit Excellerate Foundation and Walton Family Foundation, has led the 33-year-old mother of three closer to realizing her dream. She is one of 100 students who enrolled this semester in classes at Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale.

The City Council is expected to discuss Tuesday whether to support Upskill with $3 million of the city's American Rescue Plan funding.

Upskill NWA is a three-part workforce education program to help residents "up" their skills, said Jeff Webster, president and chief executive officer of Excellerate.

Banuelos is working to go from a certified nursing assistant to a licensed practical nurse and, perhaps eventually, a registered nurse.

Philanthropists, local governments and the state would provide a total of $30 million over five years to establish the program, according to a plan Webster presented to the council last month. Modeled after the Project Quest program started in San Antonio, Upskill is expected to sustain itself in five years, he said.

Staff from Northwest Technical Institute, Northwest Arkansas Community College and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Northwest Regional Campus would teach the skills. Washington Regional Medical Center, MANA Medical Associates, Northwest Medical Center, Arkansas Children's Northwest and Mercy Northwest Arkansas would agree to hire graduates of the program. Upskill staff will step in with social services for the students, as needed.

Graduates in return agree to work for two years at the medical companies that hire them.

The program would allow residents who lack resources to make changes for their families and fill essential jobs in the region's medical industry, Webster said. The first class started in January with $1.5 million from both the Excellerate Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, reported Ali Johnson, Excellerate's director of technology and marketing.

Money provided by Springdale would help build an expansion at Northwest Technical Institute for the training, as well as provide programming, he noted.

The program also would fit with the city's goal to position the area around Arvest Ballpark as a regional destination for medical care between Dallas and Kansas City.

Offices and facilities that choose to locate in the district will need nurses and technicians. Once their two-year commitments are up, Upskill students could move into these jobs, said Larry Shackelford, president and chief executive officer of Washington Regional Medical Center.

The $30 million needed to establish the Upskill NWA program would be a one-time request and would come from its three partnership areas of the community: government, philanthropy groups and the health care industry, Webster said.

The benefiting employers would pay Upskill placement fees for students hired, Shackelford said. The placement fees would go to operate the program the next year, he said.

Philanthropists would bear the brunt of costs for expanding Northwest Technical Institute and Northwest Arkansas Community College's Washington County campus, both in Springdale.

Upskill NWA officials plan to approach the governments of both counties and the region's big four cities to fund the program, Webster said. The requests are based on 4% of a city's allotment from the American Rescue Plan for covid recovery, he noted.

Excellerate officials also anticipate money from the state to help build the expansions.

Health care

Webster said Excellerate plans to expand Upskill NWA's offerings to other career fields important to Northwest Arkansas like information technology.

The group decided to focus on health care first because of the high demand for such positions, he said.

Health care and social assistance is the third-largest industry in the region, but the second-fastest-growing by number of positions added each month, Webster reported.

Officials thought Northwest Arkansas had training programs in place, but when Excellerate officials approached local post-secondary education institutions, they found the programs were full, he said.

That's when the Excellerate Foundation went looking for partners to help build facilities.

Northwest Technical Institute has received a pledge of $10 million from the foundation for a proposed 50,000-square-foot building on the northwest part of its campus, said Jim Rollins, president of the school.

The school could raise the number of graduates from its medical trades from 100 a year to 300, Rollins said.

The Excellerate Foundation committed $6 million to fund an 11,000-square-foot expansion of Northwest Arkansas Community College's Washington County campus. The school could graduate an additional 120 registered nurses per year, Webster said.

The region's major medical organizations are doing a good job training and recruiting doctors, Shackelford said. But the profession would need support staff for those doctors.

The medical advisory board for Upskill counted openings one day last summer and found 950 jobs across the targeted fields, Shackelford said.

The time is right for the Upskill program, Shackelford added. The cities have received money from the federal government to help people affected by the pandemic.

American Rescue Plan guidelines allow the money to be used to help certain populations that were "impacted" and "disproportionately impacted" by the pandemic, according to information from the National Association of Counties provided by Excellerate.

Things local governments can provide include community health workers to help households access health and social services, services to address educational disparities and educational equipment and facilities for schools.

"Health care workers, especially right now, maintain our well-being," said Carol Silva Moralez, president and chief executive officer of Upskill NWA. "But there are not enough to give us all we need because of covid."


The Upskill program pays not only tuition, books and class fees, but also can help a student with child care, transportation, tutoring, rental assistance or other costs that might create a barrier to education, Webster said.

Upskill NWA also matches each student with a career navigator, he said.

"These navigators meet individually with each student once a week to ensure the individual reaches that higher-end job that also gives financial stability," Upskill's website reads. "The support of the career navigator is on board until graduation and throughout job placement."

Through the meetings at the "Take Charge of Your Life" program of the Whole Health Institute, students learn life skills for financial planning, conflict resolution and becoming successful employees.

The nonprofit Whole Health Institute strives to change ways the community works together to help individuals take charge of their health. The institute, which would include a medical school, was founded in 2017 by Alice Walton.

Upskill students might not fit the traditional profile of students, Webster said.

"They might be the first person in their family to graduate high school," he said. "They might not know how to fill out a financial aid form. They might not have a supportive family infrastructure."

Upskill students are not eligible for education and financial aid under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy, Moralez said. The policy protects from deportation individuals who came to the United States illegally when they were children. Immigrants granted deferred action can earn a permit to work or go to school in this country.

"They couldn't receive any national funding as far as financial aid, but they are eligible for our program. They have untapped potential. Others are stuck in circumstances in which they must work to keep living," she said. "They can't stop and go to school because they must work to maintain their household."

All these students have one thing in common: They lack access to the resources needed to make a change for themselves and their families, Moralez said.


Not quite a nurse, Banuelos has still spent her life helping people. She has worked full time on the night shift as a nurse's assistant at area nursing homes, where she has learned to value the elders.

"I love learning their stories," she said. "At that age, they have no filters and will tell you how it is."

Nursing was put on the back burner when Banuelos started her family, she said. Her children are ages 11, 9 and 1.

Attending school does not allow her to be at home during the day to care for her youngest, she said. Nor does it allow for full-time work overnight.

Upskill has helped her reduce day care costs to small payments she can afford.

Banuelos said her 11-year-old, Alan, saw her studying a few weeks ago and asked why. She told him she need to pass her test and finish the program because it is really important for her to help people, to make a difference in someone's life. She told him there's never an age to stop learning.

On a recent trip to the store, Alan asked her to buy him some colored pens or pencils, Banuelos said. He said he wanted to make his notes from school look just like hers.

"He said he wanted to be as diligent as I am," she said.

Banuelos admitted a fear also kept her from nursing school -- a fear of needles. She's not sure she wants her classmates practicing their skills on her.

"But it's the time," she said. "With the nursing shortage, it's time to get over my fear."

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