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The Department of Nursing at Wesley College is close-knit community of approximately 200 undergraduates and about a dozen faculty and staff, working out of an assortment of offices, classrooms and labs scattered among a few campus buildings.

But, beginning this summer, the nursing school will take its first step toward what could be a sizeable expansion and consolidation of the program.

Earlier this month, the federal government announced that it has granted Wesley’s request to take over the J. Allen Frear Federal Building in Dover and use it to house the nursing school.

The 36,000-square-foot Frear building, located at the corner of North and New streets, used to be the regional headquarters for the Social Security Administration and housed the local offices of Delaware’s congressional delegation.

In 2009, the feds announced that the Frear building, built in 1974, would be declared surplus property. Priority to take over the building went to other federal agencies, then to state agencies, then to public nonprofits.

Working with the state Department of Education, Wesley was able to acquire the Frear building free of charge, because the nursing school qualifies as a worthy use that will benefit the public.
The college is scheduled to take possession of the Frear building in July, with renovations slated to begin shortly thereafter.

Nursing program director Dr. Karen Panunto said the new space will be used for everything from faculty offices to a new auditorium, but the primary focus will be on adding classrooms and labs for students.

The labs, she said, are where aspiring nurses practice their skills in an environment closely resembling a real hospital or doctor’s office.

“There’s different components to a lab. Your basic lab would have beds in it, like you’re walking into a hospital room,” Panunto said. “Then there is what’s known as the simulation lab, where we have simulators, computerized mannequins, that mimic the physiological response that a patient would have.”

Right now, the nursing school only has space for a few simulation labs, which makes scheduling class and study time a challenge.

Brandon Hoskins, a senior nursing student graduating this spring, said the program has done its best to work in its limited space, but the time is right for expansion.

“The way the space is set up now, we have some classrooms, but they took away a classroom to have more space for simulation. It’s hard to get into the lab and study, because you have three other levels that are trying to get in there to test,” he said. “I think with the new setup it will allow everyone to do what they need to do.”

Nursing department chair Dr. Lucille Gambardella said, with the acquisition of the Frear building, the only thing holding back growth is the number of nursing faculty.

“Right now we have 10 full-time faculty, and we’re sort of at our max with the numbers we have now,” she said. “If we wanted to increase our numbers, I’d say we need another four, five or six faculty; that potential is certainly there.”

As the faculty numbers increase and allow the nursing program to grow, the Frear building’s close proximity to Bayhealth Medical Center’s Kent General Hospital and the numerous medical offices on Dover’s west side will be even more important, Gambardella said.

“It has wonderful access for us to the hospital, that opens up other partnership opportunities,” she said. “We could offer a lot to the hospital for those who are already nurses who want continuing education.”

In addition, Gambardella said the Frear building could serve as a hub for other health-related programs Wesley may add in the future.

“I think eventually the college would like to look at other allied health programs; things like occupational therapy, physical therapy, pharmacy, respiratory therapy. There are a lot of other options out there that could be considered,” she said. “Having the building was the initial required step.”