Old Enough to Learn Better

As a senior at Chicago State University, Beverly Stewart has a schedule filled with classes and extracurricular activities, including a position in student government, as well as a job doing hospice work as a certified nursing assistant. In May, she will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Her classmate Markitha Reacco is also in her final year of the Chicago State nursing program. Reacco combines her rigorous classload with an EKG technician job at Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center and volunteer work at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club. She says becoming a nurse has been a lifelong dream.

Stewart and Reacco may sound like typical “20-something” nursing students—but in reality they are part of an emerging trend of nursing students who are getting their professional education later in life. Stewart is a 45-year-old mother of four and Reacco is a 44-year-old with two children and two grandchildren. Both women are also African American and single mothers.

As older students than their classmates, these women face many challenges. They have had to make the adjustment to college while juggling the responsibilities of jobs and family life. They have faced the financial burden of paying for their nursing education at a time when others are planning for retirement. And they worry about having fewer years in which to move up the career ladder and make their contribution to the nursing profession when they graduate. But both Stewart and Reacco are confident that they have indeed made the right choice.

Marketable Assets

Stewart explains that she actually began her nursing education in the late 1980s—even finishing the majority of her prerequisite classes. But with small children at home she was forced to put her studies on hold and put her family first.

Today, Stewart doesn’t see her age as a hindrance to getting her nursing education. In fact, “I see it as an asset,” she explains. “I am more focused now, because I don’t have the distractions of small children. I have a go-get-it attitude. I am reliable. I am responsible. I see my age as a more marketable aspect than anything else.”

One of the most positive results of her collegiate experience, Stewart adds, is that her two younger sons are now hoping to earn college degrees as well. “They see me up at night studying; they see how driven I am and how I am succeeding. It makes them believe they can do it, too.”


A former medical assistant whose mother and sister are both nurses, Reacco says she has found going to school later in life challenging because it is difficult to juggle the demands of schoolwork, family, work and other commitments. “There is a lot to absorb,” she explains. “I find I have to put a little bit more into it than I did in my 20s. It takes a lot of discipline.”

Reacco says she has also felt the pinch of financing her education while putting her daughter through college. “I had to reduce my working hours to about 23 a week, which meant a cut in pay,” she explains. “Finances are the biggest challenge.”

But that doesn’t stop Reacco, who hopes to work as either a critical care or geriatric nurse, from planning to continue on to get a master’s degree, and perhaps even a PhD. “The nursing profession is trying to bring in more young folks, so I have a lot of competition out there,” she explains.

The Graying of Nursing Students?

According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Division of Nursing, the average age of graduates from basic nursing education programs is on the rise. In the period from 1991 to 1996, the average graduation age of nurses was 31.7 years—up from 23.2 years in the 15-year period prior to the study.

The survey also found that the average age of nursing students graduating from associate degree programs in 1991-1996 was 33.5 years, compared to only 28 years for baccalaureate program graduates. Although the study does not break down these statistics by race or ethnicity, many educators believe that minority students often opt for associate degree programs, because of financial constraints.

Sandra Barnes, PhD, RN, associate professor of nursing at Chicago State University, says there are a number of older nursing students at her school, which is a predominantly black university. Their average age, Barnes says, is about 36. “Many older students are going back to school after they have established families. Nursing is something they have always wanted to do and now they have the time and freedom to do it.”

Many of these older students are in the university’s RN-to-BSN and LPN-to-BSN programs. The generic baccalaureate program has more students right out of high school, says Stewart, who adds that she and Reacco are two of only four students over 30 years of age in their senior class.

Older students have a strong investment in program completion, explains Barnes, who is African American. “They are at a point in life where they have made a commitment to undertake a career that they will be able to stay with until retirement. They have goals that they are determined to meet,” she says. Nursing educators also agree that older students are easier to teach than recent high school graduates, because they have more life experience.

Migdalia Rivera Goba, EdD(c), MS, RN, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst School of Nursing, believes older minority students bring a lot to the table. “I think their life experience, both professionally and personally, is a huge asset, including their experience living as an ethnic minority in the United States,” she says, adding that age isn’t really a barrier to getting a position after graduation, because of the nationwide nursing shortage.

Feeling the Squeeze

Ann Joyner, 44, a senior at North Carolina A&T State University School of Nursing, another historically black school, says she began her education to become an RN at a community college but later transferred to her current school’s baccalaureate program. “I had been doing okay at the community college, and I thought, ‘Why am I doing this program when I can go to the university and get a BSN?’'” she says.

According to Joyner, the most challenging part of her nursing education experience is dealing with the diversity of ages within the student population. “The young ones see things so differently, while the older ones are more relaxed, calm, a little more focused and not in a hurry,” she says. Many of her classmates call her “Miss Ann” out of respect, she adds, and her nursing sorority recently elected her as president.

Joyner, who has two children, nine and 25 years old, says she and her husband are beginning to feel the squeeze of financing her education. She spends approximately $1,000 per semester on tuition and between $275-$350 on books.

Angela Cisero, RN, says she and her husband saved and budgeted for several years to enable her to go through the UMass RN-to-BSN program. Cisero, who is 34 and African American, is the mother of three children and works 34 hours a week as a nursing supervisor at a long-term care facility. She says she will spend approximately $5,000, which includes books, on the year-long program. “It was a personal achievement goal, something I always wanted to do, she explains. “Overall, it has been challenging but very invigorating. I have to be very organized.”

Nursing Careers for All Ages—and Genders

Although she always excelled in math and science, Cisero says she was not recruited in high school to go into nursing—a trend many nursing educators see as a problem.

“Many minorities who go into nursing enter the field at an older age and attend programs at junior colleges,” says Bette Keltner, PhD, RN, FAAN, dean of the Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Sciences. “While that’s a positive thing, because the experience of older nurses enriches the profession, it is also a negative thing, because these students end up in positions where they will not advance or have influence in minority health decision-making.”

Keltner, who is American Indian, feels there should be a systematic outreach by nursing schools to high school students, and in particular, minority students. “In the past, nursing schools did not have to do proactive outreach, because the students were coming to us. But today, the dynamics of recruiting have changed,” she explains. “And we continue to perpetuate the idea that nursing is a female profession, instead of making an effort to actively recruit more male students.”

Romanitchiko Samiley, RN, of West Los Angeles, says he never considered nursing as a profession when he was in high school. “Males often don’t think about entering the field,” says Samiley, who is 31. “Even though I had some friends and family members who were nurses, most of them were female. I never considered becoming a nurse.”

Samiley, a Filipino American, went to the University of California at Berkeley and earned a BS degree in integrated biology. He then worked as a health educator and developed an interest in nursing, earning his ADN degree in his mid 20s. Because his ultimate goal is to become a nurse practitioner, Samiley is currently attending the University of California at Los Angeles in the three-year RN-to-BS-to-MSN program.

At this point, he sees his age as an advantage. “I have had some experience working,” he says. “I have discovered what I like in a career and what I don’t like. When you are doing something you are interested in, you tend to be more focused and you enjoy it more.”

Samiley also works as a staff nurse at Santa Marta Hospital. He says time management is an issue for him. “Being older, I have more responsibilities, unlike the first time around,” he says. “Balancing my education, social life and career is the most challenging part of my current educational experience.”

Keep Moving Up

According to Kay Baker, RN, MSN, associate dean of Student Affairs at the UCLA School of Nursing, the school draws a diverse group of students–both in age and race. Older minority students have much to offer, she says. “They bring nonacademic experience and life experience. And they bring a cultural perspective that we need. Many of them have been working in a community setting or a hospital setting for a number of years, so they know what the needs of the community are.”


Baker believes nursing is a profession where people can continue to progress up the educational ladder, no matter what their age. “Students shouldn’t think of their first nursing degree as their one and only educational experience,” she emphasizes. “Nursing is such a rapidly changing profession in terms of knowledge and technology that you can’t prepare at one level and expect that to carry you through an entire career.

“Some minority students start their nursing education by going to a community college, because it’s more accessible and affordable—but they shouldn’t stop there,” Baker adds. “If I had one message to older students, it would be: Keep moving up to next the level of your professional nursing education. Don’t stop learning.”