Undergrad nursing students practice injections in Berk Hall at UCI. Steve Zylius / UCI

Eight eager nursing students in blue scrubs watch classmate Kathy Le carefully thread a catheter into the patient. He doesn’t blink when she pokes his vein – he’s a lifelike manikin, as they’re called in the profession.

When Le, 20, successfully pricks the rubbery arm and hooks up the tubing on one try, her fellow students erupt in spontaneous cheers. “It’s exciting,” she says. “It’s my first time. Getting your techniques down and being confident in yourself is important before you deal with real patients.”

There’s been a lot of cheering at Berk Hall in recent weeks. Building on the highly ranked nursing science program established at UCI a decade ago, the new Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing was created by the University of California Board of Regents on Jan. 26.

A $40 million gift from the William & Sue Gross Family Foundation means the school will grow rapidly to address a federally identified need for 1.2 million new nurses in the next five years. As baby boomers grow older and veteran caregivers and professors retire, California and other parts of the Southwest are already seeing shortages.

The gift, the largest in campus history, will fund construction of a state-of-the-art facility with dramatically increased classroom and research space. The school also plans to double faculty size and student enrollment in the next 10 years and to expand nurse-managed clinics.

“The mood is ecstatic. The faculty and staff have worked so hard to reach all the important milestones to achieve school status,” said founding Dean Adeline “Adey” Nyamathi. “This will allow us to move forward much more strongly on our vision for the future.”

The regents’ approval affirms the excellence of UCI’s nursing science program, which has earned a remarkable reputation since it began in 2007. NurseJournal.org named it one of the top 10 in the western United States, and its nurse practitioner faculty has been consistently ranked in the country’s top 25.

Students in the competitive but close-knit school are thrilled by the official recognition.

“Woo-hoo! We deserve it. UCI is a very different type of program. I love it,” says Bernadette Abadilla, 20, a junior in nursing science. Although she was accepted elsewhere, UCI was her No. 1 choice because of its intimate size and top-flight faculty who always have time for students. That type of caring exemplifies nursing too, she notes.

She describes one clinical practice session during which she held the hand of a frightened elderly woman with dementia as doctors administered shots and other treatments. “I just looked right at her and squeezed her hand,” Abadilla says. “She smiled, and she was much calmer. I had to maintain my professional protocol, but I was so overjoyed.”

Fellow junior Jon Frigillana, 21, had a similar experience providing flu shots to young and old at a Garden Grove clinic. One terrified little boy was eventually calmed with cookies and hugs.

“It’s the personal connection that counts. Rather than just trying to solve someone’s sickness, it’s getting to know the patient,” says Frigillana, who participates in every volunteer opportunity he can. “I not only want to know they’re getting better, but also that the patients can get out of this, and I know I treated them right.”

The students laugh over other experiences, such as realistic “code blue” training, complete with vital signs monitors like those in hospitals that alert personnel if a patient has flatlined. The manikin’s lips even turn blue if inadequate oxygen is given. In her case, Abadilla rapidly and successfully injected lifesaving epinephrine.

“That’s really big, because even if it’s a manikin, you don’t want to kill any patient!” she says.

UCI awards bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in nursing science. The school plans to offer a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree soon.

Students study the biological, social, behavioral and biomedical sciences. In addition, “repetitive skills labs instill nursing techniques into undergraduates’ motor memory,” says operations and accreditation manager Michelle McCoy, “so they can skillfully start IVs and give shots and medications when they begin to interact with patients.” Ph.D. seekers conduct in-depth research on nursing philosophy and other topics. All are prepared for basic and advanced clinical practice, as well as for educational, administrative and research positions across the healthcare system.

Undergraduates are often taught by graduate students like Justin Reyes, 30, who – in addition to his teaching and dissertation research – works at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach as a registered nurse care manager. He works mainly with the geriatric stroke population. “They have so much wisdom and knowledge,” he says. “It’s important to respect that and treat them as humans first, patients second.”

Reyes earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing science at UCI in 2013 and chose to return for his Ph.D. because of the program’s tightknit, collaborative nature.

His doctoral work on stroke, stress and genetics is helping him home in on potential solutions to issues he and fellow nurses have identified in the hospital, such as how to better transition patients back to the community and prevent readmissions.

Like the students, Nyamathi is a staunch advocate of community-based work, as well as telemedicine and other emerging tools to provide cost-effective care to aging and other vulnerable populations at or near their homes. She practices what she teaches. The dean helped oversee a clinic at the Union Rescue Mission, Los Angeles’ largest homeless shelter, for decades. Nurses there offer services to combat physical and mental illness, addiction and other issues, while performing critical research. Nyamathi has also worked with women living with AIDS in rural India and their caregivers.

In just her second month at UCI, she says she’s been amazed by the commitment to innovation by faculty, staff and students here: “It’s phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it. They’re brimming over with ideas, and we will achieve our vision.”