What makes YOU get up in the morning?
Would I do it all over again? As I come to the end of a long nursing career, I am asked that question more and more. Sometimes, it comes from my nursing students, other times from new graduates, and often from friends and colleagues.
Would I do it all over again? Would I take 18 and 20 hours a semester because my nursing program miscalculated the hours and courses needed to graduate with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)? The school also “opened” the class, and the usual 30 students became 144. Administrators were unable to work with that many students, so our grading scale changed from the standard college scale of 90 to 100 for an A, 80 to 89 for a B, and 70 to 79 for a C, etc., and became 96 to 100 for A’s, 91 to 95 for B’s, and 86 to 90 for C’s. Anything below 86 was failing.
Would I sit through classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for four semesters? (On Wednesdays, when I had anatomy and physiology labs, or organic chemistry lab, I was in class until 8 p.m.) I had my clinical experiences on Tuesday and Thursday for half a day. The rest of the class had its clinicals the other half of the day.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I took four three-hour classes, sat for and passed LPN boards, and worked on a medical-surgical unit. That fall and the following spring, I took two courses by “correspondence” (this was 1972, before online) in addition to my 18 and 20 hours of face-to-face classes. I also took two correspondence courses when I first began my nursing career so I could graduate in June. I will never forget those two years. Out of the 144 students who started the program, only 52 of us “walked across” that June.
I was not prepared to be a registered nurse when I graduated. When you wear that pin with the RN after your name, people don’t know if you’ve been a nurse for five years or five days. According to my NCLEX-RN scores, I had a pretty good knowledge base. Back then, the exam was a two-day, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. affair divided into five parts. The security level was daunting. A proctor accompanied you to the bathroom, and you had to leave the stall door cracked a little. You could wear no jewelry, and you couldn’t bring a purse or anything else with you. They even gave you the two pencils for the exam.
Somehow, I passed. But I didn’t have the clinical skills I should have had, so I had very little confidence as a nurse. I was lucky to work with another ADN nurse who graduated from a program that was better organized. She had the nursing skills and confidence to help me get through that long first year, and she became my best friend. I owe her so much for being my mentor.
From ADN to DNP
I have been “back to school” three times since 1974: In 1982, I graduated with my Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). In 1992, I graduated with my Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). And in 2014, I graduated with my Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Each time was better than the last, for many reasons. My teachers not only taught me, they mentored me. With each degree, the content changed, and the learning process was different. Each required a higher level of reasoning and a different way of thinking about things. Each educational stage opened my mind a little more, and my ability to analyze and synthesize became stronger and more accurate. Each time, I gained more knowledge and acquired more skills, and, by the time I finished my DNP program, I knew I would miss the rigor of academic learning.
Those years had some good times and some difficult times: Our house burned during my ADN program. I was pregnant during the senior year of my BSN program—I was the only student allowed to eat crackers in Russian history class—and my daughter was born two months before I graduated. My husband and I separated when I was working on my MSN, and I was diagnosed with a chronic illness right before I began my DNP degree. Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to keep it all together. I believe my drive to prove I could do it all was stronger than everything else.
But if achieving educational goals was all nursing was to me, I would never have gone further than the first year of my ADN program. I remember always “knowing” I wanted to be a nurse because I like helping others. Patients aren’t always easy to work with. After all, we see them at their worst—when they are sick and scared, when they are in pain or dying. Each one has deserved the best care I could give, and sometimes it took a lot of caring to give that much of myself—day in and day out.
My most favorite “specialty”
I have had clinical experience in many nursing specialties, but women’s health—including obstetrics, gynecology, and psychiatric-mental health—is my favorite. I enjoyed being a public health nurse, a home health nurse, and a Red Cross nurse, but my most favorite
nursing “specialty” is academic nurse educator. I teach nursing students, and I absolutely love it.
I never thought I would like teaching, much less fall in love with the role. I loathed having to get up in front of a class or other group of people and “present” something. I hated it—absolutely hated it. But in the senior year of my BSN education, I had a classmate who was a level chairperson in a diploma-nursing program, and she would tell me every so often that I would make a wonderful teacher. It always amazed me when she told me that because she was obviously seeing something in me that I could not see.
As I mentioned, I was pregnant during my senior year. After graduating, I stayed home with my daughter until she started kindergarten. Every August, my friend from the BSN program would call, but the year my daughter started school, she told me: “You are all out of excuses. Please try teaching. Give it one year. If you don’t like it, you can quit, and I won’t bug you about it ever again.” I gave in, against what I thought was my better judgment. Besides, I needed to work again. So, in 1987, I began my last specialty—teaching.
In the beginning, there was a lot to learn, and there were days I wasn’t sure I liked everything about the role. I enjoyed the face-to-face interaction with my students, and I enjoyed learning everything I could about the content I was teaching. I wasn’t crazy about all the meetings, never-ending grading of papers, and evaluation of clinical skills—or the paperwork that went along with all that. But each semester I taught, I learned so much from my students. I loved watching the light go on when they suddenly grasped a concept that had eluded them for so long. I loved watching them grow in skills and confidence, seeing them attain their goals and succeed—sometimes for the first time in their lives.
Teaching is still what makes me get up in the morning. I still learn something new each semester. I find myself wanting each student to be the best he or she can be, and I want them to want that, too. I no longer get to enjoy face-to-face interaction because I teach exclusively online now. My students are RNs who are returning to earn their BSN, as I once did. It’s exciting and fulfilling to know you have had a part in preparing a nurse for a future in nursing. It’s not just the academic mission—it’s more than that. It’s being a part of students’ lives, knowing I’ve made a difference. I’ve helped someone achieve his or her dream.
My education and the profession of nursing have made me who I am. I have accomplished most of my dreams while helping others achieve theirs. So, as I begin the end of my teaching career and am asked if I would still become a nurse if I could relive my life, I answer, You bet I would!
Karen Davis, DNP, RN, CNE, clinical assistant professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, is a Virginia Henderson Fellow.