Tears came streaming down the faces and onto the crisp white uniforms of many of the 33 new graduates of Washington Hospital Center's School of Nursing yesterday as they received diplomas during an emotional ceremony that marked the end of 93 years of nursing education at the school.
"It's the end of an era," John P. McDaniel, president of Washington Hospital Center, said yesterday at the graduation, which was held in the Hartke Theater at Catholic University. "It really is a somewhat sad occasion to realize that there will be no class next year."
About 500 parents, spouses and teachers attended the ceremony for the one male and 32 female graduates of the school, which has fallen victim to falling enrollment and changing educational trends in nursing.
Among this year's graduating class -- in addition to the ususal hugging, cheering and picture-taking -- there seemed to be more interest in exchanging telephone numbers, collecting school memorabilia and otherwise trying to preserve the camaraderie and spirit of the place.
"We were like one big family," said Ella-Mae Burke of Laurel, who wept as she hugged her classmates. "It's sad; I've been crying all day."
The Center, begun in 1891 as the Garfield School of Nursing, had built a solid reputation among area hospitals by offering a three-year program of clinically oriented, hands-on nursing training.
However, since 1965 -- when the American Nurses' Association began advocating formal bachelor's degree programs for nurses -- student applications for the hospital center's program had dropped from a high of about 120 students in 1964 to less than 36 in the last two years.
School officials negotiated with American University and Trinity College but failed to get the insitituions to take over the program, said Robert G. Cleveland, a hospital trustee and chairman of the center's nursing school committee. The two schools cited the poor economy and other problems, he said.
The school thus was forced to join similar clinical nursing programs at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Bellevue Hospital in New York that already had folded.
"Today a nurse will not be able to progress in the field without a bachelor's degree," said Nan Dunn, director of the school. "There was a growing feeling that the education of nurses was no longer an aprenticeship kind of program, but the preparation for a profession, and, therefore, belonged in institutions of higher learning."
Because of the changing educational demands in the nursing profession, many of the center's graduates said yesterday they will be heading back to school to earn their bachelor's nursing degrees.
Graduate Nancy Ashe Gallagher, who landed a job at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, said she plans to enroll in school part-time and work toward a nursing degree. The annual pay for nurses with a bachelor's degree is about $4,000 higher than those that simply hold a nursing diploma, said Gallagher.
Kevin Michael McGraw, of Springfield, the center's only male graduating nurse, said he also plans to go back to school but said he is not in a rush to get back into the classroom.