How a 55-year-old RN Gathered the Courage to Go Back to School

Donna Dvorak successfully reinvented herself!

Donna Dvorak, 55, is an accomplished nurse with a successful career in Boise, Idaho. Her years of experience and career success have earned her the respect of her colleagues and her employer. Yet, Donna had reached a point in her career where she wanted a change. She was greatly drawn to the area of clinical research — and when an interesting position in this field opened up in her town, she was thrilled. She thought she was a perfect candidate for the job. That is, until she found out that her experience alone wasn’t enough for her to advance her career. Here’s our interview with Donna – and we appreciate her candid answers to our questions!

Which factors made you think, “I need to go back to school?”

I was looking for something different to do. I developed a really strong interest in achieving a new nursing position in clinical research. But, quite frankly, I was shocked to find out that everything required more education. It did not matter that I have 15 years’ experience and five years in clinical research. The powers-that-be made it very clear to me that I could not advance without a BSN.

Was this a surprise to you, the inability to advance without a BSN?

Yes, the news really disappointed me. From my perspective, I thought going back to school was just too hard at this point in my career. When I weighed the time commitment — having to sit and read and read, and accommodate huge amounts of study requirements — it all seemed pretty daunting. The thought of going back to class to answer questions in Q&A sessions, attending lectures, was really, more than I could imagine for myself.

You had a friend who had been getting an online nursing degree. Did she provide some insights for you?

Yeah, I thought my friend was a little nuts to go back to school. (Laughs) But I remember asking her as many questions as possible, and that’s what really helped me begin the journey. Over time, it began to sink in that the format was more about discussions and questions — and this discussion-based model of online learning begin to take shape in my mind.

And is that when the green light went on for you, when you began to think you could go back to school?

Well, I knew ‘online’ was not a synonym for ‘easy,’ but I also felt that it just wouldn’t be as hard to learn this way. It would actually be better for me, as an adult. I realized how important it was to understand and discuss concepts, and then back them up. And for me, I’m in just my second BSN course, but the more I read in class, the more I want to read more! There’s just so much information! I began to absorb really interesting material, and it became a very interesting way to learn because I was doing it myself.

That was an important insight about online learning for me personally. You are gaining knowledge independently, versus relying on a book assignment for reading. I think the autonomous nature of online learning enabled me to find the information I was looking for, and I think I was able to absorb more of it that way.

What were your fears or obstacles to going back to school? How did you address them?

Well, the financial obligations were the biggest consideration for me. So I researched, believe it or not, 23 online universities. And then, I made a grid and went through each one to find out who was accredited and how much the cost was for each semester hour. And from that, I was able to whittle the list down to 10 online universities. Then, I got to talking to each admissions department, and I eliminated schools with tons of physiology requirements and vast amounts of clinical time. For me, American Sentinel University was a critical contender because of how friendly they were, and I found out I could receive a military tuition rate.

Describe your feelings as you started your very first online BSN course.

I did have some fear and anxiety. I did ask myself: will I be able to do this? Am I smart enough? The first week, I was very uncomfortable. But it actually became very easy to adapt pretty rapidly. I found out I had a paper due every week, and I hadn’t written one in 100 years! (Laughs) But the instructors offered a tremendous amount of hand-holding. You don’t really have a chance to get carried away with your fears. My experience was that I received really good direction, the syllabus was very detailed, it was clear, and there was lots of guidance. Also, there’s an open student forum to help you get immediate answers to things. That really helps!

What made writing papers less scary?

I found that I can do it around my own schedule and pursue the discussion and read what others are writing and get my mind wrapped around the expectations. I think I got a lot of grounding from what others were doing. I would study their questions. Then I saw the answers to their questions and realized how right on track I really was. I think in life we’re kind of afraid of a blank canvas because there’s no starting point. But with online learning, there is always starting point. Whenever I felt as if I was in a gray area, American Sentinel had ways for me to get the guidance to find out more. So that allowed me to organize my mind and deflate any anxiety.

What advice do you have for others, regarding managing your time as a student?

Setting time aside is a must — every single day. Read over what other people have posted. That way, you’ll know what’s going on in the classroom and stay engaged with it. When you find out what other students are looking at and what they are reading, it allows you to choose different articles to read and discover something different.

How are your coworkers and managers supporting you now that you’re in school? And how about support from your family?

Everyone, as it turns out, has been very supportive. Fortunately, my manager had just finished her BSN, so she was totally supportive of the decision. Also there are four other nurses in my office now completing their BSNs. I think everyone knows in a work environment that Magnet® status is very important. I’m surrounded by lots of people who are talking about going back to school. It’s a very positive climate. And as far as my family, well, we had to rearrange the chore schedule. Once that was accomplished, things got pretty smooth.

What do you like best about American Sentinel University?

I really like how well the classes are focused. Each syllabus for each class is really clear, and I really appreciate that. I also really like that my classes are also focusing on anthropology and sociology and culture. Right now we’re looking at people of different origins and the constructs surrounding world health. I’m studying what’s affecting global nursing considerations, particularly on the African continent. Right now I’m studying how nursing affects different cultures. And it’s fascinating!

What academic benefits from your course work have you been able to apply to your job immediately?

Beyond a doubt, it boosted enthusiasm for my job. And when I started reading, I started refreshing the material that I had not thought of in years.  And it really has honed my critical thinking skills again. I work more efficiently, my thinking is much more clear.

You too can empower yourself with knowledge through an online RN to BSN or RN to MSN degree. American Sentinel University is an innovative, accredited provider of online nursing degrees, including programs that prepare nurses for a specialty in case management, infection control, and executive leadership.

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