SAN MATEO — Shaneen Stroup spent about four years working in advertising before finally deciding to follow her heart.
She really wanted to be a nurse — the way the nurses were to her family when her mother fell gravely ill.
"My mom was in and out of the hospital and ultimately passed away," said Stroup, 27, of the Morgan Hill area. "The only saving grace for me was the nurses. The nurses were there through what she was going through and telling us how we can be there."
Today, Stroup and 35 others are training to be nurses in an intensive program at the new San Mateo Learning Center of Samuel Merritt College.
Earlier this month, the college in Oakland opened the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program on the Peninsula to help address a labor shortage as reflected by the recent strike at local hospitals.
Bay Area nurses held a two-day strike over unresolved issues including the need for adequate staffing so they can take their breaks and lunch periods.
"Most of the issues of the strike had to do with work hours and work loads," said Zenobia Collins Johnson, interim managing director for the San Mateo center. "The morenurses, the less likelihood of stress on the nurses, and the less likelihood of nurses thinking they can't provide care and feeling frustrated."
She added, "There are students waiting all over the country to get into a nursing school."
The center features classrooms, offices, a computer laboratory and a conference room on a renovated third floor of a business-park building.
The center also has a simulated hospital ward with patient beds where students can practice on specialized mannequins and medical equipment.
The mannequins can simulate heart attacks, other types of illnesses and even child birth, said Collins Johnson.
The cost for the center amounted to more than $633,000 and was paid by a $5 million grant from the East Bay Community Foundation, Kaiser Permanente and the Betty Irene Moore Nursing Initiative, according to college spokeswoman Elizabeth Valente. The grant also pays for improvements at Samuel Merritt's San Francisco satellite.
The advanced program caters to those who already have degrees in a non-nursing field and prepares them to become nurses in a year.
Collins Johnson said a nursing program typically runs two years. "In an accelerated program, you generally have the best and the brightest."
Besides classroom and lab tasks, students also work with real patients, nurses and doctors at area hospitals.
"I chose this program because it's fast-paced," said aspiring nurse Veronique Ortiz, 28, of San Jose, who has a microbiology degree and worked as a substitute teacher. "I like to learn a lot of information at once. Everything we learn in class we directly apply (in real situations) in hospitals."
Having a nursing school in San Mateo also makes her commute convenient, she said.
Next year, Collins Johnson said, the San Mateo campus will grow to serve more than 80 students.
"Students usually end up in the locale where they practiced," she added. "It serves local hospitals."
Stroup, who earned a degree in speech communication with a double minor in advertising and marketing, feels she's now living her dream.
While training in hospitals, Stroup enjoys taking care of patients' needs. from bringing them ice water to just listening to what they have to say, she said.
"I feel good about making a difference and giving back to families the way the nurses gave to me and my brother," she said.