While National Park College offers many different programs for students to choose from, students have the rare opportunity to participate in the funeral service program through a partnership with University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana.
UAHT is one of only three schools in the state to offer the two-year program, which is awarded as an associate of applied science degree in funeral services.
"The first year in the program is basically your prerequisites for funeral service courses, and you'll take your math, English, speech, computers, things like that," said Program Director Brad Sheppard.
"And then once you finish those prerequisite courses that first year, then you can start the core funeral service program, and it begins once a year in June. And they'll work all the way through May and graduate and receive their associate of applied science in funeral service," he said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic sent many students across the nation to take classes online, the funeral service program at UAHT followed suit and just never returned to the traditional classroom, Sheppard said.
The online aspect of the program allows many students from across the state and even from other states to attend classes through UAHT and fulfill clinical requirements through approved local funeral homes, Sheppard said in an email to The Sentinel-Record. Students are only required to visit the UAHT campus twice, once at the beginning of the core courses for orientation and then once at the end of the program for funeral directing, restorative art and embalming labs.
"I think it's a great opportunity because it's closer to central Arkansas, and we do have a lot of students maybe in the Hot Springs, Benton, Arkadelphia area that would like to do the program, but Hope may be a little too far away or a program in Dallas, they're just not able to drive there," Sheppard said.
"So having an online option is a really good opportunity for them because, in the past, we had a lot of students wanting to do the program, but until we had this partnership with National Park, we weren't able to serve everyone in the areas, but now we can."
Keisha Fanning is a student in UAHT's funeral service program, who is scheduled to graduate this coming May, she said. She started her prerequisites at NPC and then transferred to the online program through UAHT, but she still currently lives in the local area.
"I never really pictured that I would want to do any of this because before, I thought I would wanna be a psychiatrist or social worker of some kind, and so this is really different," she said. "But I just saw the transformations and the power that is mortuary science and what that can do for the living family members."
Fanning is now in her final courses of the program, which is what she and her colleagues have "been waiting for," she said.
"We're at the point now where we get to do hands-on work, and we're just learning about really important things, like the funeral psychology, sociology side. When you're helping families that are grieving, I think that's a really important class to understand the different emotional dynamics between people. That's really important when you're helping people, knowing everything about that and that people can respond differently to death."
During a student's last two semesters, they take part in the clinical course, in which they have to participate in 14 embalmings and observe a certain number of funerals as well, Sheppard said.
"One funeral home allowed me to come in and watch the embalming process, and I had never seen it before, so I was a little nervous," Fanning said. "I didn't really know what all that was going to entail.
"But I watched the embalmer bring in a woman who had passed a couple hours prior, and he was to embalm her. And she really didn't look very well, being deceased, and by the end of the embalming procedure, she looked like she was sleeping. She just looked like she was taking a nap. It was just amazing," she said.
"So, in a way, they're getting true, real-world experience is a part of that course, the two courses clinical I and II," Sheppard said.
"We try to teach our students that the goal of funeral service is to help people recognize the importance of life," Sheppard said. "I tell them 90% of their job will be with the living, not the dead. And we want them to help the community, help the family understand the importance of ceremonies, of rituals in the healing process. So, that is our goal.
"We have courses in psychology and sociology, they'll take courses in counseling as well as religious courses where they learn about religious funeral rights from various cultures. So, we want to give them (an) understanding of the funeral ritual, the history of funerals and basically, instill in them the importance of mortalization for people," he said.
Fanning is currently an apprentice at a funeral home, while she waits for her graduation in May, she said, noting she hopes to get hired there as a funeral director/embalmer after she finishes her degree.
"I also want to go back to school a little bit after I finish school, just to learn some secondary languages, so I can help different families at the funeral home from different backgrounds that might have different languages that they speak, just so I can help more people," Fanning said. "That's a big thing I really wanna do."