Robyn Nelson, PhD, MSN, RN, has served as dean of the College of Nursing, West Coast University, with campuses in Southern California, Texas and Florida, for the past five years. Nelson shares her experiences and words of wisdom for those who are thinking about going back to school.
Q: What kinds of issues do you find nurses face when it comes to going back to school and what are you suggestions for addressing them?
A: I find many nurses who are on the lifelong educational journey are challenged with balancing work, home and school. Any one of the three responsibilities is a full-time obligation. It is important to make the decision to go back to school when there is support from family, friends, colleagues and the employer; when competing demands for time are more manageable; and when there are minimal distractions from school. When I returned for my doctorate, I tucked my 4-year-old daughter into bed every night (and my husband), and I began to study. My classmates and I would discuss course issues on the phone late at night and sometimes into the morning hours. Share your educational dream and take everyone on the journey with you.
Q: What has been most helpful when encouraging nurses to continue their education?
A: It is important to have both a personal and professional reason for returning to school. I also think it needs to be something that you want more than anything. I remember an RN who returned for her BSN, and her colleagues kept saying to her, “Why are you doing this? It isn’t going to make any difference.” Her response was, “I am doing this for me and for my patients.” With the research on patient outcomes and safety, no one can say it won’t make a difference. The Institute of Medicine’s goals for BSN and doctoral education are encouragement enough. The year 2020 is around the corner, and the 2020 goals are a perfect vision for the future of professional nursing.
Q: What have nursing students shared with you about their challenges, stumbling blocks and successes while in school?
A: Undergraduate students who want to be professional nurses may or may not have a realistic expectation of the work involved in a prelicensure nursing program. They have come from general education where they most likely completed a reading assignment and then took a test that measured knowledge only. I say “only” because nursing school requires application of the reading and learning to set priorities and meet client needs, which is a change of thinking for many students. It has been said that nursing school is the only place where all the answers for a multiple choice exam question are correct — and the student can still get it wrong. It isn’t just a regurgitation of facts. Nursing school is a new language and a new way of thinking.
Many students continue to work while they are in school. Students also may live with extended family members, have multigenerational situations and may be tasked with helping to care for young siblings or ill family members. Consequently, they often stay late at school so their attention is focused on learning to be a nurse.
Students build incredible support groups while in school and that is essential. Certainly, success comes with peer assistance and reaching out for support when needed. At every pinning, our students acknowledge the hands that have been there for them throughout the program.
Q: How do you work with employers of nurses at various facilities to help make the degree process more user-friendly for students?
A: Were it not for our clinical partners — and I emphasize the word “partners” — our students, prelicensure or graduate, would not have the clinical opportunities critical to the educational experience and their eventual employment.
We include our clinical partners in our program advisory committees twice a year. We review the educational experience, discussing challenges and opportunities together. We collectively outline steps to ensure the clinical component is preparing the graduate for the real-world expectations.
Many of our adjunct faculty members are employed by our clinical partners, and they bring our students insights that help ease the transition to a new role after graduation. We also participate at career fairs held by our clinical partners, and our career services team reaches out to them to see if our graduates are matches for open positions. With the nursing shortage, it is important that we all have the same goals and expectations.
Q: What words of wisdom can you share with nurses about the value of pursuing advanced education?
A: Nursing is a profession, however, the one element that historically has been challenged when describing it has been the educational preparation. Nurses are the glue of the healthcare team, and higher education will make the difference in the delivery of healthcare, that is, care that emphasizes interdisciplinary collaboration. It is very important that nurses do not have the least amount of education among the members of the interdisciplinary healthcare team.
The literature is full of evidence and discussions in support of going back to school as a critical step in creating a professional nursing practice environment, an environment that is positive for the nurse and for the client. With advanced education comes the recognition of knowledge, expertise, leadership, empowerment and collaborative practice relationships. I like to say that education is knowledge, and knowledge is power!
My advice is: You’ve only just begun, no matter at what level you enter the profession. Continuing your education is a professional responsibility, and it is a gift to you and a gift to your clients.
What advice can you share with others who are considering advancing their education?