It’s ‘school, school, school’ for nursing assistant now that UCHealth has pledged $50 million for employee education program

UCHealth leaders have pledged $50 million over four years so employees can grow their careers and paychecks.
Nov. 29, 2022
Aureen Thomas, who hopes to become a registered nurse someday now that UCHealth will pay for her education.
Aureen Thomas hopes to become a registered nurse someday now that UCHealth will pay for her education. Thomas is a lifelong learner and is eager to keep growing her paychecks especially because she helps support family in Nigeria. Photo by Sonya Doctorian for UCHealth.

The nursing assistant cares for hospitalized patients during overnight shifts, tends three young children and helps support family in Nigeria.

Despite being incredibly busy, Aureen Thomas, 35, just completed a new medical certification in record time, and the sky’s the limit for her future career and education plans thanks to a new UCHealth program that pays for her education.

“It’s school, school, school for me. I have a lot left to do in my life,” Thomas said.

Thomas is a certified nursing assistant in a medical surgical progressive care unit at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. She just completed a phlebotomy course and now can pick up additional shifts drawing patients’ blood. Next, Thomas is eager to complete a pharmacy tech program. Then she hopes to become a registered nurse.

“It’s in my blood. I love caring for people and showing them love and empathy to help them heal faster,” Thomas said.

UCHealth pledges $50 million for employee education programs over four years

UCHealth Ascend Career Program: How it works

Employees can choose from three types of programs.

Fully funded programs and courses

UCHealth pays 100% f tuition for select clinical programs, high school diplomas, English courses and more.

Partially funded programs

UCHealth directly pays tuition for up to $5,250 per year for a wider selection of in-network programs.

Tuition reimbursement

UCHealth will reimburse employees up to $5,250 per year for accredited programs outside of the Ascend catalog.

Thomas and other UCHealth employees now can add to their educational credentials and keep scoring higher-paying health care jobs thanks to the new Ascend Career Program.

Leaders at UCHealth have pledged to invest $50 million over the next four years to pay for educational programs for employees. Ascend is a partnership with Guild Education, a career opportunity company that partners with employers like UCHealth to help employees earn certificates and new degrees.

UCHealth is the first hospital system in Colorado to launch a program with Guild.

Employees who work at least half-time for UCHealth qualify for Ascend and are eligible to apply for the program starting on their first day of work.

“Ascend offers debt-free education,” said David Mafe, UCHealth’s chief diversity officer. “It gives our folks the ability to think, ‘If I could choose any career, what would I want to be? And how do I get there?’”

Along with a catalogue of educational choices, Ascend offers coaching to help employees achieve their goals.

David Mafe runs the program called Ascend that enables UCHealth to pay for education for employees.
David Mafe is UCHealth’s chief diversity officer. He manages the Ascend program that is funneling $50 million over the next four years to pay for educational programs for UCHealth employees. Photo courtesy of David Mafe.

The program can spark multi-generational change by giving people a path to success.

“Education ceases to be a barrier,” Mafe said.

He said Ascend is more than a career ladder. People can zigzag in multiple directions to add to their skills and education.

“You’re able to climb wherever you wish,” he said. “As our folks are able to see more opportunities, this changes the dynamics for their families.”

Through stable jobs that come with bigger paychecks and insurance benefits, people can provide health and wealth for their families.

“That’s really good for all of the communities we serve,” said Mafe, who is also vice president of human resources for UCHealth’s Denver-area region.

A family tragedy in Nigeria makes her earnings all the more essential

Aureen Thomas came to the U.S. from Nigeria eight years ago and experienced a devastating family trauma in 2020. Thomas’ mom was a victim of violence.

“She had 12 bullets all over her face and head,” Thomas said.

Aureen Thomas' mom depends on her daughter to help support her after a violent attack. Photo courtesy of Aureen Thomas.
Aureen Thomas’ mom depends on her daughter to help support her after a violent attack. Photo courtesy of Aureen Thomas.

One of Thomas’ two sisters lives with their mother, and Thomas provides financial support.

“I am the head of the household for them,” said Thomas.

Her husband also immigrated from Nigeria. He’s an accountant and has been living and working in the U.S. for 18 years. Together the Denver couple is supporting two families: Thomas’ relatives in Nigeria and their family here in Colorado. The couple is proud parents of 4-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, along with a 2-year-old daughter.

“It hasn’t been easy. I divide every paycheck. Everything that comes in gets shared,” Thomas said.

A love of lifelong learning — and late-night study sessions — power her success

While tears fill Thomas’ eyes when she thinks back to the devastating shooting, her mom’s strength and determination motivate her every day.

That’s because Thomas’ mom taught her three daughters to be lifelong learners.

Her mom first studied English as a second language. She then earned a Master’s degree in linguistics, then at age 60, completed a Ph.D. in English as a second language.

“She’s always been a bookworm. She’s always encouraged us and said, ‘You’re never finished with school. You keep going,’” Thomas said.

For Thomas, that now means making do with very little sleep so she can finish schoolwork late at night.

She encourages fellow workers to take advantage of Ascend as well but understands that it’s tough to carve out time for school.

“When you think about working many hours, and you have no time for yourself. It’s hard to spend time studying. Some people think, ‘I could use those hours to make more money and pay the mortgage or take care of kids,’” Thomas said.

“But when UCHealth pays for programs, it’s really worth it. You have to think of the future,” she said.

Does UCHealth pay for education for employees? Yes. Aureen Thomas is already benefiting from the Ascend Career Education Program and hopes to become a registered nurse someday. Photo by Sonya Doctorian for UCHealth.
Aureen Thomas, a certified nursing assistant who works nights, helps her patient, Renee Koustas, order oatmeal as soon as the kitchen opens in the morning. On top of her regular work, Thomas is participating in the Ascend Career Program and plans to become a nurse. UCHealth will pay for her education. Photo by Sonya Doctorian for UCHealth.

Always a go-getter, always eager to learn

The minute Thomas’ supervisor heard about Ascend, she knew it would be a perfect fit for her standout employee.

“Aureen’s always been a go-getter,” said Olivia Thornton, a nurse manager at University of Colorado Hospital. “She’s one who’s always offering to help out. She’s always looking for opportunities to grow.”

At first, Thomas thought the program sounded too good to be true. But, with Thornton’s guidance, Thomas signed up for Ascend and also applied for and received reimbursements for loan forgiveness.

One of the phlebotomists who trained Thomas also praised her skills and ambition.

“I’ve trained a few people and she really stood out,” said Noah Vasquez, who is growing his own career by heading to physician assistant school next year.  “She was really eager to learn, was receptive to tips and tricks and was curious about finding more ways to climb the ladder. It’s great that our company is fostering opportunities for employees.”

Aureen Thomas, a certified nursing assistant in a surgical trauma intensive care unit at UCHealthAureen Thomas checks on supplies near the end of an overnight shift. When she's not working, she takes care of her three children, family in Nigeria and carves out time to study so she can earn degrees and better paychecks. Photo by Sonya Doctorian for UCHealth.
Aureen Thomas checks on supplies near the end of an overnight shift. When she’s not working, she takes care of her three children and family in Nigeria while also carving out time to study so she can
earn degrees and bigger paychecks. Photo by Sonya Doctorian for UCHealth.

So far, Ascend Career Program is attracting many employees of color

While Ascend just launched six months ago, 2,000 UCHealth employees already have completed applications to participate as of early November. About 700 are enrolled in tuition assistance programs and 120 have completed a program, said Mafe, UCHealth’s chief diversity officer.

He is thrilled that the program is already having a big impact on people of color.

“When we look at the demographics, our Hispanic and Black employees are participating at almost twice the rate of their population within UCHealth. So, it’s been really exciting,” he said.

While Ascend is great for employees, it also helps UCHealth retain great workers.

Retention rates are already higher for employees who have applied for Ascend than for those who have not checked out the new benefit. Mafe expects the positive results to keep multiplying over time.

“Our mission is to improve lives,” Mafe said.

That mission centers on patients and also on employees or prospective employees. Mafe encourages people who want to take advantage of the Ascend Program to apply for jobs at UCHealth.

“We have a bunch of entry-level jobs. We’re working to reduce barriers to getting those jobs. Then once you land with us, you have the ability to keep growing your career,” he said.

He even talks about adult children of current employees.

“This is funny, but it’s not a joke. If you’ve got a child living in your basement who is not going to school and hasn’t figured out what they want to do, have them come to UCHealth,” Mafe said. “This is a great place to work and we’ll pay for their education.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.