WE ALL HAVE our own unique stories about how we came to nursing, but mine might be a little stranger than most. I began my college career in earnest at age 21. Working full time in a factory during the day, I took two evening classes every semester at my local community college. It took me 5 years to earn an associate degree in psychology.
Then I quit the factory and put my college dreams on hold to have a baby. My husband and I had put money aside so I could stay at home and care for our son for the first few years. When he was old enough for preschool, I began working part time as a mental health technician at a nearby psychiatric hospital while continuing my psychology studies. My life was never the same.
That next year was a watershed for me as I worked with RNs caring for psychiatric patients. I really had no idea what psychiatric nursing was. In truth, I had no idea what nursing was at all. When I found out, it changed me. Working alongside these people, these nurses, felt like an honor. They were smart, educated, kind, warm, resourceful, and brave. They could also engage in dark humor. I found all of this refreshingly honest. I had found my career.
When I started nursing school, the holistic approach to patient care convinced me I was on the right path. I had a second epiphany when instructors asked us to envision a long-term career goal. I realized that I wanted to be one of them, a nursing educator.
With that in mind, 2 weeks after graduating with an associate degree in nursing, I applied for a pilot program being offered by a major state university. It was a baccalaureate in nursing extension program, with many classes being offered locally on the community college campus. Life always seems to have a way of interfering with our plans, however, and it was not to be.
Because my husband died shortly after I received my RN license, I spent the next 27 years working at the bedside in hospitals. I occasionally took a class, but the closest university was a very long drive and no extension programs were offered near where I lived. With a son to raise and a mortgage to pay, I settled into a clinical career that, although exhausting at times, was never boring. But after my son graduated from college, I revisited that long-ago dream of becoming a nurse educator.
By then, life had intervened again in the form of a series of serious health problems, which led to my disability and retirement from bedside nursing. But by this time, the mid-2000s, extension programs were much more common and online classes were beginning to be available. I had 27 years of clinical experience to pass on and I was not going to let it go to waste.
I earned my baccalaureate from a hybrid university extension program. About half of the classes were online, allowing me to cope with health issues at home while introducing me to this new form of nursing education. Guidance from instructors was timely and individualized, and my relationships with fellow students were enhanced through discussion boards. I also became adept at utilizing electronic information sources and communication tools, skills nurses in every area of nursing practice need to function in our fast-changing healthcare system.
I have taught nursing in an associate degree program for the last several years, finally realizing my dream of becoming a nurse educator. I have also continued my professional nursing education, recently earning a Master of Nursing degree through a fully online program at a state university. The likelihood that I would have achieved either of those things in a traditional education setting is slim to probably none at all.
It has now been almost 40 years since I walked onto that psychiatric nursing unit for the first time. My journey to becoming a nursing educator has been a rough one at times, and perseverance has played a part. I must admit, however, that had it not been for extension programs and online education, I would not be telling this story. It's really a tale of two stories. One is the story of the nursing profession, which grapples with the problems of real life and lets people with dreams like mine achieve them. The second is the evolution of alternatives to the traditional route to higher education. With the proliferation of extension and online learning opportunities, nursing education has built a road that travels out from big cities to small towns, farms, and ranches. It welcomes travelers who are spouses, parents, and employees, healthy and not so healthy, as well as traditional students. It welcomed me, and our stories became this tale of luck, hard work, and a vision of another way.