Practicing what I learn: My path to nurse educator

Aaron M. Sebach |

The author’s secret to success? Never give up!

Practicing what I learn: My path to nurse educator

His career path from emergency department nurse to chair of a DNP program has been nontraditional. Along the way, he has learned from fellow students as well as teachers.

Aaron M. SebachI am proud to be a nurse educator. My career path has been nontraditional. After graduating from nursing school, I began working in a busy emergency department but, while still going through orientation, enrolled in a Master of Science program in nursing education offered by my alma mater, Salisbury University. I vividly remember discussing my upcoming academic schedule with the emergency department educator who asked, “What is your priority, this department or your education?” Although taken aback by the question, I made a commitment that I would always value both education and clinical practice.

Applied learning
Upon beginning the master’s program, I quickly realized I was in the minority. I was the only male in the program and, at age 21, by far the youngest. Nevertheless, I pushed forward, learning from my classmates as well as faculty members, with college teaching and nurse educator practicum among my favorite courses. Working closely with an experienced nurse educator, I enjoyed applying my coursework to practice. After two years of full-time study, I proudly graduated with the program’s inaugural cohort.

Recognizing that, even with two years of nursing experience, it would be an uphill battle to secure a position as a nurse educator at age 23, I remained at Salisbury and enrolled in the post-master’s family nurse practitioner (NP) program, completing it one year later. Following graduation, I transitioned to an urgent care and occupational health NP role. Although I enjoyed the outpatient setting, something was missing. Yearning to return to the hospital setting, I enrolled in a second post-master’s program to become an adult gerontology acute care nurse practitioner with the requisite skills to care for acutely ill patients.

NP plus NP plus DNP
Midway through that program, I learned that Salisbury University was going to offer a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program. I was accepted as part of that program’s inaugural cohort, again the only male and, at age 24, its youngest member. Once again, I learned from fellow students in the program—advanced practice nurses and other nurse leaders. We all came from different backgrounds, which led to rich discussions. While enrolled in the DNP program, I applied for part-time adjunct faculty positions and was hired by Salisbury to teach in its NP program. As it turned out, that position lasted only one semester because some of my fellow faculty members would be teaching me during the next semester.

While completing my DNP, I was hired as an adjunct faculty member in the NP program at Wilmington University, primarily guest lecturing in the adult healthcare management course and making clinical site visits. I also taught an advanced health assessment course. The seven-week, block-format course was intense, but it opened doors for me. Before completing my teaching assignment, I learned that a full-time position was available at Wilmington University as assistant professor and chair of the school’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program. The regional NP program chair encouraged me to apply and, after several phone conversations with the dean of the College of Health Professions, I decided to do so. As I completed the application, questions arose: Am I qualified? Why would they want to hire me? Do I have enough teaching experience? If hired, will I be respected in the role?

Program chair
In 2015, after three rounds of interviews, I was offered the position. I was speechless. A few months after completing my own Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, I was being given the opportunity to chair a DNP program. Though afraid of the unknown, I was determined to rise to the challenge.

In the months that followed, I transitioned from a full-time nurse practitioner position to a full-time role at the university. I was assigned a mentor who had 25 years experience teaching at the baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral levels, and her support and guidance were critical to my success in academia. I also took advantage of Wilmington University’s Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Technology departments. Both contributed to my professional development in instruction, communication, engagement, and assessment. After I completed the Pathways to Instructional Excellence program, Wilmington University named me one of its first five Exemplary Instructors.

Next goal: PhD in nursing education
Recognizing, however, that I still lacked knowledge beneficial to success in higher education—specifically program evaluation and accreditation—I began searching for a way to obtain additional formal training in nursing education. I found an innovative program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania that enables DNP-prepared nurses to earn a PhD in nursing education, and I began the program in June 2016.

This pathway program recognizes prior DNP coursework by accepting 27 doctoral transfer credits. The remaining 33 credits encompass research methodology, curriculum and program evaluation, accreditation, evaluation methods, and a dissertation related to nursing education. The knowledge and skills I have acquired thus far have contributed significantly to my growth as an educator. Applying what I’ve learned, I have completely redeveloped the DNP program at Wilmington University, transitioning it to 100 percent online, and positioning it for continued accreditation success.

As a PhD student, I have learned from expert nurse educators. I have developed a nursing education research interest and, in January 2018, presented my findings at the Doctoral Education Conference sponsored by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. In late 2017, I conducted, together with a fellow instructor, a qualitative study that explored experiences of DNP-prepared nurses enrolled in a DNP-to-PhD pathway program. As I begin my dissertation later this year, I will continue to explore differences and similarities of DNP- and PhD-prepared nurse educators, analyzing their inherent distinctions and similarities and the critical academic role of each.

I have encountered roadblocks along my nontraditional path to becoming a nurse educator, but there have also been triumphs, which I attribute to grit and determination to never give up on my goal. In advising students, I am reminded of my own professional journey. Everyone’s journey is different, and there will be ups and downs, but persistence is key. Never lose sight of your dreams. RNL

Aaron M. Sebach, DNP, MBA, AGACNP-BC, FNP-BC, CEN, CPEN, assistant professor at Wilmington University College of Health Professions, chairs the college’s DNP program. He maintains an active clinical practice as a hospitalist nurse practitioner at Peninsula Regional Medical Center and performs preoperative medical evaluations at Peninsula Orthopedic Associates, PA, both in Salisbury, Maryland, USA.

Editor’s note: Aaron Sebach will present a session titled “Exploring the Experiences of DNP-Prepared Nurses Enrolled in a DNP-to-PhD Pathway Program,” on Friday, 20 April, at Nursing Education Research Conference 2018 in Washington, D.C.

Check out these additional articles by presenters at Nursing Education Research Conference 2018.

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