Nursing is a wonderful profession that has brought a sense of joy and fulfillment to so many of us. It is a career that can be accessed by six different levels of nursing degrees, corresponding with six different levels of academic achievement.
My mother became a nurse after graduating from a nursing diploma program, which was the main provider of RN graduates until the 1960s. The minimum degree required today for becoming an RN is an associate degree in nursing. Most hospitals prefer to hire a baccalaureate-prepared nurse, but an ADN is considered by some to be a good choice for those who want to become an RN quickly without the commitment of a four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree.
I skipped a grade in elementary school and was 16 years old during my senior year of high school. To say I was an underachiever in high school was putting it mildly, as I was immature and mainly interested in cutting school and chasing boys. This was very challenging for my mother, who was told her daughter was academically gifted, yet all she saw was a teenager who did not apply herself in school and went on to defy conventional expectations and rules of society.
The year was 1970, and it was a wonderful time to be young in America but a rough time for many parents. Needless to say, colleges were not competing for my attention, but that was the last thing on my mind as I had no interest in attending school. I wanted to be free to continue to participate in the great social experiment of the late 60s and early 70s, the counterculture hippie movement!
I spent the next 5 years traveling the country with my boyfriend, who later became my husband. We had a great time, but one day we both realized it was time to settle down and prepare for our future. It seems we had grown up.
I had always intended to attend college, and once I settled down enough to apply myself, I enrolled in a local community college as a psychology major with plans to become a therapist. I did well in school, consistently making the dean’s list, and found I actually enjoyed learning. I paid for my classes myself (with a Pell grant or two) and did better academically than most of my younger classmates, who still lived with their parents and didn’t even have one foot out the door. I had visions of getting my PhD and building a thriving practice. Well, you know what they say about plans, right?
I left school in my sophomore year when I became pregnant with my son. I enjoyed being a young mother, and things were so much simpler back then. I was able to stay at home for 10 years and returned to school when my son was in third grade. I was almost 31 years old at the time and felt I was too old to pursue a PhD as originally planned (foolish girl!).
I thought about enrolling in nursing school because I liked the idea of helping people. Also, the beginning course loads for psychology and nursing were similar and I could get a degree and start working quickly. My mother was a nurse; she seemed to like what she did, and I always thought she looked so beautiful in her white nurse’s uniform with her clean, white cap and shoes.
Nursing had been good to my mother. It supported her and her four young children when my parents got divorced and she was left to provide for us on her own. Nursing gave her a way to support us, and it also gave her a sense of herself as capable and worthy. It was a good example, so I decided to apply to nursing school.
I did, however, have some qualms about attending nursing school. I was intimidated by some of the courses. I thought, can I do this? Do I have what it takes to be successful? But, I told myself, if other people can do it, so can I!
I worked very hard, spending hours and hours studying, and was rewarded with grades consistently in the top of the class. As time went on, I continued to realize a pattern of academic success that delighted me and led to a great sense of personal accomplishment.
Since I was able to matriculate many of my previous courses, I received my ASN within 2 years. This was the degree I happily worked with until I became a 46-year-old widow. After my husband died, I needed some direction, and I decided to go back to school to get my BSN. I knew my financial future was more likely to be stable with a bachelor’s degree. I thought if I was going to be a single older woman, I wanted to prepare myself to avoid being a poor, single older woman!
I was accepted into Florida Atlantic University’s nursing program. I was working full time, so I never took more than two classes a semester and was able to immerse myself in courses that were stimulating and enriching. I studied the great nursing theorists and took electives that complemented my nursing studies while engaging my mind, my heart and my soul. I learned to speak French, took advanced math classes and found that I loved sociology. I flourished in FAU’s academic environment and found myself absorbing all the different fields of knowledge like a sponge. I honed my leadership and critical thinking skills and was able to realize a deeper understanding of my patients’ needs: physical, emotional and spiritual.
During my studies, I learned the value of nursing and was given the words to articulate why the practice of nursing fulfilled me and made me happy. It wasn’t until I studied nursing theory that I understood the power of nursing and how it enriches and empowers not only the patient, but also the nurse. The art of nursing occurs in a space where the nurse is called upon to use the best parts of themself daily: their intellect, compassion, empathy. These are all attributes that make us human, that lead to self actualization. When the nurse answers the call to serve another human being in need, the nurse and patient engage in a divine covenant as old as time, and healing occurs on both sides.
I graduated summa cum laude with my BSN and found academic life so stimulating and enriching that I decided to continue on to graduate school. I chose FAU’s MSN program with a specialty in education, wanting to pass the baton of my love of nursing to the next generation.
I experienced an even greater sense of discovery and fulfillment in graduate school and found myself thrilled by its challenges, graduating summa cum laude with my master’s degree in nursing education. It took me 10 years to complete both programs, taking one or two classes a semester. I have often reflected on the irony of my 30-year-old self thinking I was too old to pursue a PhD when I received my master’s degree at age 57! You are never too old to go back to school, and nursing is certainly one field where one can build on previous educational levels.
My ASN provided me with basic nursing education and technical skills; my BSN helped me grow clinically and professionally, and my MSN provided me with specialized knowledge in nursing education. All three levels of my educational path led to my growth as a nurse and as a human being. Like my mother before me, I felt capable and worthy in the nursing arena.
Studies show that most nurses with advanced degrees leave the bedside for management, administration or teaching positions. That is sad for a couple of reasons. For me, higher education enhanced the bedside experience. The more I learned about the science and philosophy behind the practice of nursing, the more meaningful and rewarding the work became. Our patients deserve our best, and by staying at the bedside, my studies and growth as a human being and as a nurse benefitted not only me, but my patients as well.
I continued to work as a hospital case manager during these years because I loved the work and I was not willing to take the huge pay cut had I started teaching without my PhD. Floor nurses can expect a salary increase with attainment of each higher level of education. Unfortunately, case managers were not eligible to participate in the hospital’s clinical ladder at my facility, so I did not receive any salary increase with either advanced degree. I accepted this because I was already making a good salary, and one of the reasons I went back to school was to secure my long-term employment prospects so I remained at the bedside, happily helping and interacting with patients, families, nurses and doctors, knowing that “one day” I would utilize my MSN for increased employment opportunities.
I left the hospital environment a couple of years ago, and my credentials as a master’s prepared nurse led to my current position as a content creator for an online educational platform for case managers and social workers. I am very happy in this position, and it was only possible because of my MSN. It took a while, but all my time and hard work did pay off financially. Obtaining my BSN and MSN has enriched me personally and professionally not only in the ways I have shared but in ways I can’t even articulate. If my story inspires even one person to return to school, I will be happy.
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