Our Next Nurses: Chattanooga State Serves Students, Community with 35 Years of Nursing Excellence

By Amanda Ellis and Betty Proctor

Meet Dr. Martina Harris, Assistant Dean of Nursing

Chattanooga native Martina Harris, Ed.D., has held positions on all sides of nursing – from 12-hour hospital shifts to insurance, administration and higher education both in the classroom and now leading Chattanooga State’s highly successful nursing program. Figures from the Registered Nursing Licensure Exam show that pass rates by Chattanooga State Community College graduates on their first attempt are consistently higher than state and national figures. In 2018, nursing graduates scored 100 percent on their first attempt and over a 10-year period, have passed on the first attempt at 96.5 percent vs. 90.2 percent statewide and 87.1 percent nationally.

Harris is one of only three accomplished health care leaders to direct the 35-year-old program. Building on the work of Cynthia Swafford, Ed.D., and Tonya Gorman, Ed.D., Harris says she hopes to “maintain and continue the kind of talent growth excellence” Swafford and Gorman cultivated.

Trend: What made you want to be a nurse?

Harris: It sounds cliché, but I always wanted to be in a profession where I could help people. I have a nurturing spirit. When I went to college, I never changed my major. My mama dropped me off at MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University) in 1986 and that’s what I knew I wanted to do. And now I’m leading by example, my oldest daughter is an RN in Louisiana and my middle daughter is in her last year of nursing school. My youngest isn’t studying nursing, but she’s a junior in college and every semester, I tease her by letting her know it’s not too late.

Trend: What’s most rewarding about leading Chattanooga State’s nursing program?

Harris: I am most proud of the dedicated faculty that choose to work at Chattanooga State.  My faculty are very talented and dedicated to preparing our students to be successful, competent RNs. And when I see our graduates in the community it makes me proud when they tell me they graduated from my program because I know what caliber of faculty I have.

Chattanooga State Launches New Nurses

When April Taylor lost her job as a security guard, she began considering a different career, one with less uncertainty. She decided on nursing, and landed in Chattanooga State Community College’s nursing program, graduating in 2007. She graduated this year with a Master’s of Science in Nursing from Middle Tennessee State University, and now works as a nurse practitioner and adjunct instructor at Chattanooga State. She attributes much of her success to Chattanooga State’s supportive program

“My third semester, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer and I failed most of my classes, but I got right back to it the next semester,” Taylor says. “I was a mom at 16, and I had two kids by the time I was in nursing school. The odds were stacked against me, but this program is so supportive with mentors and professors who take time with the students, especially the ones going through things. This program is excellent for anyone, not just recent high school grads, but people looking to change careers as well.”

Chattanooga State’s Registered Nursing Program celebrates 35 years of excellence serving students like Taylor from all walks of life. They’ve graduated 3,088 nurses. Established in 1983, the program received initial approval by the Tennessee Board of Nursing that same year. The first class of 41 students graduated in 1985. This inaugural class designed the Chattanooga State nursing pin still awarded today.


In the early days, as word of the nursing program spread, local health care providers began looking to Chattanooga State for quality employees, and more students wanted to become nurses through the program.

As interest grew, Gorman, Marilyn Brady and Betsy Green developed curriculum for a night program to offer more flexibility, and the program expanded to include the LPN Transition Program and Paramedic Transition Program to help graduates work toward greater responsibility and pay.

In 1989 Shirley Kilgore became the night program’s first coordinator. Kilgore, along with faculty member Hennie Gunter, worked with the nursing program for more than 30 years to support students’ educational goals. Today, both instructors say that at least 50 percent of their students set future goals to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

“In addition, many of our graduates have gone on to obtain advanced graduate-level degrees including MSN, FNP, DNP and MD,” Gunter says.

Since its inception, the nursing program has called several on- and off-campus locations home, including the Fillauer building on Third Street across from Erlanger Hospital. Construction on the current location, Chattanooga State’s Health Science Center (HSC), began in 2008. This dynamic educational environment for teaching, learning and exploring includes a simulation lab that allows nursing students to develop their clinical proficiency and hone critical thinking skills.

“The simulation lab recreates a clinical environment that allows students to experience a realistic health care event,” says Robin Hoffecker, assistant professor of nursing and simulation educator. “Ultimately, the aim is to create safe, effective health care practitioners.”

“Every student does at least one eight-hour clinical day in our simulation lab per semester to supplement their clinical placements at local hospitals,” Harris says. “Their first semester, they learn about medication administration, so once they’re in the hospital, they’ve practiced. The second semester, they practice post-op assessment, because students are going to the surgical floor during their second semester. It’s a complement to and preparation for their clinical training.”

Thanks to that solid foundation, Chattanooga State nurses are successful throughout our community and beyond, in a variety of degree programs and work settings.

“Chattanooga State is proud to have educated quality registered nurses in the community for the last 35 years,” says Rebecca Ashford, Ed.D., president of Chattanooga State Community College. “Our graduates have had a positive impact on the health of thousands of community members, and our future graduates will continue that tradition of providing outstanding health care.”


Check out our Chattanooga Works podcast examining local talent recruitment in the health care field.