Nurses who return to school to continue their learning may think that the tree of education has no branches, that they are limited to nursing degrees. Not so. With an ADN in nursing, I went into a bachelor’s program for management, a master’s program for psychology, and a doctorate in education. Yes; you can branch out to other areas of interest that may serve better your personal and professional goals.
Whatever branch of higher education you choose, be aware as you search for a program of any preconceptions you might hold. Do your homework and talk to different schools’ enrollment advisors about what their programs entail. Ask friends for names of their friends who may have gone through similar degree programs, and ask for their input.
When searching for an online psychology degree, I found an awesome program at a well-known school on the west coast, but they only offered MSW. A master’s degree in social work is very versatile, but it did not meet my needs or interests. When I asked that school advisor about other programs, she admitted that the MSW was their first online effort. That admission sent warning bells clanging through my head. A name school without a track record in running online programs is still learning. Make sure the school you choose is accredited and established.
Whatever field you choose, know that higher education has yet another benefit: you can gaze through the world through the lenses of your peers. Your fellow students will probably come from different professions than you, and sharing your interpretations, differences, and similarities enriches your learning. I found common work experiences with a sign-language interpreter, dental hygienist, and English professor. We all dealt with the public, and bonded over shared experiences, enhancing our learning in unrelated fields.
Learning how others deal with the demands of home, work, and an online program helps you to view your educational experience in a broader sense. Sharing tips and tricks for getting through assignments, meeting deadlines, organizing materials, and supporting each other is as rich in the online classroom as brick and mortar schools. You learn to communicate better.
You do bond online. You establish friendships. You mentor and are guided by people you may never meet. If you are lucky enough to be within several hours of one another geographically, you may find yourself making the drive to share a hug and a meal. Lifelong friendships and professional associations grow from online classrooms. One of my peer/mentors is a USAF air traffic controller stationed in Germany, and we talk almost daily.
My online professors are world class experts in their fields. I have four degrees from local colleges, and loved my instructors; some were fabulous. My online experience gave me the opportunity to learn from professors with global experiences and influence who are practicing and current in their fields. They write the books and journal articles that we use as references.
An online education has also helped me to challenge my beliefs about how people should learn. I grew up in a teacher-centered banking method of education where the sage on the stage was the center of my learning. We memorized and regurgitated information, which worked well, to a point, but then when it came time for critical thinking, we needed more. Online learning taught me that we all learn differently, and professors need to work with students as a team.
Ultimately, however, the student is responsible for his/her own learning. The instructor is not in place to remind, cajole, give extra credit, teach to a test, or do the work for the student. The relationship is changing, learning methods are changing, and we are moving from covering facts and content to legitimate and rich student learning.
Finally, being aware of why you are moving into higher education is important to your sanity. When you are tired and need the push that your driving passion provides, you have to be able to tap easily into that passion. I was working full-time as a prison nurse, walking through the prison yard in -20 degrees’ weather with walking pneumonia. I came home after 14 hours, looked at my computer screen, and questioned what I was doing.
I remembered that I began this journey because I had experiences as a trauma nurse and crisis responder from which others might benefit. Generating awareness for the focus of my work with emergency responders and nurses meant increasing awareness about crisis management and response, coping, resilience, and self-care. Wanting to know how best to teach students in seminars, actively engaging them in the learning process, was my challenge.
The non-stop train that took me from associate’s degrees, to bachelor’s, master’s, and finally a doctoral program, has been amazing. Learning is lifelong, and it does not simply occur between you and a book. There are people who enrich the process along the way, and whether you continue in nursing or turn to a related field that enhances your nursing practice, do not be afraid to consider the possibilities. They are endless.
Sherry Jones Mayo, EdD,RN, MS, FAAETS, EMTP (Ret.) is author of a “Trauma Junkie” anthology available through http://sherryjonesmayo.com.
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