Work, Life, School, Balance

Juggling undergraduate nursing studies with a full-time job and six children at home constantly challenged Shayla Morales Robinson of Philadelphia. But the petite go-getter held firm to her decision to earn a B.S.N. from La Salle University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences to secure a brighter future for her family.

Even after her mother and babysitter were both diagnosed with cancer and her abusive marriage ended, Morales, 34, kept moving forward in an alternative evening program designed for working parents.

“You just have to do it, literally! You have to want it,” says Robinson, who graduated last year. “I wasn’t going to let the fact I had children, that I was going through a divorce and working full time, and being the sole provider, get me down. A lot of it was trial and error.”

From studying at their children’s soccer games and enrolling in online programs to arranging classes around a flexible work schedule and developing a master family calendar, nurses who resume their studies while raising families use a variety of strategies to cope. They say other nurses who return to school can adapt or modify their methods.

More nurses are returning to school to meet the challenges of the “increasingly more complex health care needs of a multicultural and aging population,” says American Nurses Association (ANA) spokesman Adam Sachs. Other reasons include the shortage of nursing faculty and a limited cadre of nurses from which to draw. The benefits of earning a B.S.N. or more advanced degree include higher job satisfaction and more opportunities for growth. Research shows advanced education can also benefit patients by lowering mortality, he says.

ANA supports nurses advancing their education and endorses the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) call for 80% of nurses to obtain a B.S.N. by 2020, a goal included in the IOM report The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.

Be prepared

Realistically assess your situation before returning to school, nurses and nursing professors say. Consider taking some practical measures such as seeking employers offering flexible scheduling and tuition assistance, exploring online or distance learning, and finding programs that combine online learning with on-site clinical and classroom experience.

Nurses who may be on the fence about returning to school “need to think about their physical condition. Will they be able to juggle these three things [family, work, and school] in their lives?” asks Nellie C. Bailey, Ed.D., P.H.C.N.S.-B.C., Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at SUNY Downstate Medical Center College of Nursing in Brooklyn, New York. “Your whole life changes, and it is very good to have family support.”

Nurses resuming their studies after a long gap need to review the required time commitment. Financial adjustments may need to be made as well. While family and your employer’s support are crucial, so is the support of your professors. “Take some time to go to the college and talk to the faculty about how supportive [they are] and will they be flexible?” Bailey says. For nurses planning to add to their families, inquire about maternity leave policies as well, she advises.

Your degree options

With hospitals and academic health centers requiring or preferring the B.S.N., such degree programs are thriving. There are 633 R.N.-to-B.S.N. programs nationwide, including more than 400 programs that are offered at least partially online, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

The ANA advises people entering a nursing education program to make sure the program is accredited by a recognized nursing education accreditation body and that the program meets their learning and programmatic needs.

Whether nurses are considering an undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral degree, make sure you are clear about your goals and ready for the commitment, says Melissa Gomes, Ph.D., R.N., an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Nursing. “The balancing can be tough for students, especially the adult learner. They have to make sure they can set aside time for studying. They have to always carry their work with them, so at a child’s game they can study.”

Online programs allow current and aspiring nurses more flexibility as they try to balance family and work commitment. Excelsior College, an online institution with the largest nursing education program in the country, enabled Monica Muamba, M.S., R.N., an Education Specialist at Albany Medical Center Hospital in New York, to earn her master’s degree in nursing education in April 2012. Online classes allowed her to work full time, take care of her family, and lead a nonprofit organization, she says.

“My question to every nurse out there is ‘Do you have a dream?’ Don’t let it fade! It is never too late to open doors of opportunity in your life,” says Muamba. An online program “opens the floodgate of career opportunities for nurses who could not attend traditional campus education.”

Your work-life balance

For Audrey R. Roberson, M.S., R.N., C.P.A.N., C.N.S.-B.C., family comes first. So when she decided to pursue her Ph.D., she says she discussed with her husband at length, because she knew she would need his full support—in a way, it was going to be a “dual” Ph.D. “It would have my name on it but it would be 50-50,” Roberson says chuckling. To test the waters, the nurse clinician at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical Respiratory Intensive Care Unit took one course in 2009. Still, the workload was intense; she organizes a master schedule so she could manage her time, even though that still meant staying up until 1:00 a.m. some nights doing homework.

When considering school, assess your support systems, Roberson says. “You need double the support system if you have children involved. If you are lacking support, reconsider. Entering this without support is not an option.”

Roberson advises nurses to communicate with supervisors and colleagues about any school-related schedules or projects that may interfere with job duties. She is still responsible for her work but she has learned to do more delegating and collaborating, she says. A helpful work environment is crucial. “I have support from my boss who encouraged me to get a Ph.D. She was supportive of me taking the same journey she had taken,” Roberson says.

Once committed to furthering your education, stay focused, says Isaac L. Smith, M.S., R.N., associate professor and Director of Human Patient Simulation at Prairie View A&M University College of Nursing in Houston. Smith, who has two sons, is working on his Ph.D. online at Capella University. “I am finally at the dissertation level. It has required real will. I have worked as a nurse manager for many years. I thought the best way to contribute to the profession of nursing is to give back by teaching other students,” he says.

Another strategy busy nurses use is scheduling time to relax. “Find something that feeds your soul,” says Paulina Marfo-Boateng, M.S.N., R.N., a staff nurse at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, who earned her master’s degree in part to be a role model for her three children. She relaxes by volunteering in her church.

For nurses wary of losing their equilibrium if they return to school, Marfo-Boateng advises studying at one’s own pace. “You can take one class at a time and it goes a long way. I did not do it full time. I did it part time, two classes here and a class there. If you take one class, just don’t give up,” says Marfo-Boateng, who plans to earn her Ph.D. once her daughter enters high school in a couple of years.

A can-do attitude is what led Robinson to add college to her jam-packed to-do list. A team assistant for Penn Wissahickon Hospice and Caring Way at Penn Home Care and Hospice Services in Philadelphia, she returned to school with five of her six children under the age of four, including two sets of twins. “My only motivation has been my children and the fact that so many women give up at their dreams when they are a single parent,” Robinson says.

However, not long after she started classes, Robinson felt overwhelmed and exhausted. Her marriage crumbled, a horrible custody case ensued, and her babysitter was battling breast cancer. Sometimes she missed class to watch her children and had to use class notes and recordings from classmates to keep up with her work. She also borrowed thousands of dollars to pay for babysitters and bills.

“I’d leave work at 4:00 because I had class at 6:00. I’d pick the kids up and go home. I’d put dinner on and do homework with them while I was cooking, then feed them and throw everything into the sink and then kiss them goodbye.” Some nights she stayed up until 3:00 a.m. with homework only to rise again at 6:00 a.m. to start another day.

With such a tight schedule, Robinson had to make adjustments. She called her children’s teachers and asked for an extension on homework on the two nights she had class. She made sure everyone was caught up by the end of the week. She modified her work schedule and asked professors to allow her to take day classes, even though she was in an evening program. She also requested weekend clinicals although she was taking a weekday class. 

No matter what the obstacle, Robinson found a way pass it. “I tell people if you really want to do it, you will figure a way.”

Her fierce drive and resilience impressed the faculty so much that after Robinson graduated they took the thank you letter she had written to the university and had it published in the Philadelphia Daily News (May 2011). The response from readers to her accomplishment in the face of tremendous odds touched Robinson, especially the regular updates from three nurses she inspired to return to school.

Robinson passed her National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) in June on her second try and is now a registered nurse torn between seeking a job as a psychiatric nurse or a maternity nurse. Her children are doing well. And she’s in a new, healthier relationship.

Out of school a little over a year, Robinson is already prepared to further her education. La Salle University has a dual M.S.N. and M.B.A. program that meets on Saturdays for two years.

“I started looking into this,” she says chuckling, “so I can conquer that.”

Scholarships for Nurses

If you think scholarships are just for baby-faced college freshmen, think again! There are plenty of nursing grants and scholarships offered at every level. Here’s just a sampling.

AETNA/National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations Scholars: $2,000
Sponsor: National Association of Hispanic Nurses Scholarships and Awards
Applicant must have a minimum 3.0 GPA, demonstrate financial need, be a member of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, have two letters of recommendation from two faculty members, and be enrolled full time in a four-year or master’s degree nursing program.

Eight and Forty Lung and Respiratory Nursing Scholarship: $5,000
Sponsor: American Legion
Applicant must be a registered nurse seeking advanced preparation for a full-time position in supervision, administration, or teaching with a direct relationship to lung and respiratory control.

Estelle Massey Osborne Scholarship: $2,500–$10,000
Sponsor: Nurses Educational Funds, Inc.
Applicant should be a black registered nurse who is a member of a professional nursing association and enrolled in or applying to a full-time master’s degree program in nursing approved by the National League for Nursing and CCNE. Applicant must be a U.S. citizen or have declared official intention of becoming one. Applicant must submit GRE or MAT scores. Selection is based upon academic achievement and evidence of service to the profession.

Ethnic Minority Master’s Scholarship: $3,000
Sponsor: Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) Foundation
Applicant must be an R.N. with an interest in and a commitment to oncology nursing and be of a minority racial/ethnic background.

NAPNAP-McNeil Scholarship: $2,000
Sponsor: National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners
Applicant must be a registered nurse with previous work experience in pediatrics, have documented acceptance at a recognized program, have no formal nurse practitioner education, demonstrate financial need, and state rationale for seeking a pediatric nurse practitioner education.

Neuroscience Nursing Foundation Scholarship: $1,500
Sponsor: Neuroscience Nursing Foundation
Applicant must attend or plan to attend a NLN accredited institution.

Regents Professional Opportunity Scholarship: $5,000
Sponsor: New York State Education Department
Applicant must be beginning or already enrolled in an approved degree-bearing program of study in New York State that leads to licensure in a particular profession. Purpose of award is to increase representation of minority and disadvantaged individuals in New York State–licensed professions.

Scholarship in Cancer Nursing—Master’s: $10,000
Sponsor: American Cancer Society
Applicant must show intent to develop clinical expertise and a commitment to cancer nursing. Relevant personal and professional experience is required.

Source: CollegeXpress. Use CollegeXpress to find nursing scholarships and programs