Nursing professionals ‘never stop learning’

SMSU program continues to grow with more nurses advancing their education

Submitted photo Boulder Creek Assisted Living residents, Dianne Kuecker, middle, and Delores Hook, right, pose with charge nurse Chelsea Self, who will be receiving a diploma today during the Southwest Minnesota State University graduation ceremony.

MARSHALL – Southwest Minnesota State University’s four-year nursing degree program continues to grow, and at the same provides a much-needed opportunity for both nursing students and regional health care facilities.

It produces four-year graduates such as Chelsea Self, a Tracy resident who works as a charge nurse at the Boulder Creek Assisted Living memory care center in Marshall.

Self will graduate at Saturday’s SMSU commencement. She will then continue to work for Boulder Creek while looking ahead to long term career possibilities, which might include graduate studies in nursing.

“I’m planning to take a break from school for now,” Self said. “The nursing programs I’ve completed so far have all taught me new things about the profession. At some point I’d like to keep going with my education. Between work and school, people never stop learning.”

Many other nursing professionals are following a similar educational path, first a two-year degree program to become a registered nurse and then a four-year degree. SMSU’s program is designed for students who’ve already attained RN status. About 150 alumni have reached the four-year milestone in the program’s first six years.

Self began her post-secondary nursing classes through the Minnesota West two-year technical and community college system, which has campuses in Granite Falls, Canby, Pipestone, Luverne, Worthington and Jackson.

The two-year program is mainly available online. It includes clinical internships at health care facilities that provide extensive on-site learning opportunities.

Similarly, the SMSU program allows for a further step in the nursing profession through flexible online courses that don’t require blocking out much of a typical day or week.

It’s largest on-site requirement is an internship at a health care setting not included in two-year nursing program choices. The most frequent settings for four-year students are schools and public health agencies, both of which call for experience usually not included in a two-year degree process.

“I like in-class and on-site education because it’s always suited my learning style, but online has been helpful to me for time management,” Self said. “The online lessons are always available. They also can be planned around any kind of work schedule.”

Self is originally from Gretna, Nebraska, near the Omaha city limits. She decided to train for nursing in places within manageable distances from Tracy to balance a career with personal goals.

At first she looked ahead to being a nurse in a hospital. That changed as she heard about geriatric opportunities available at nursing homes and assisted living centers from Caroline Greve, a friend and classmate who followed the same regionally based nursing degree path.

“She often mentioned the connections staff have with both the residents and their families,” Self said. “When I tried it, I found the same rewards. There’s something special about caring for senior citizens.”

Laurie Johansen of Tyler, who directs SMSU’s nursing program, followed a career path similar to those of her students. In the days before online alternatives, she finished a two-year nursing degree by traveling one day each week from her family’s Tyler area farm to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for an in-class satellite program offered by the University of South Dakota.

When online courses became available, she enrolled in them through South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota.

She said the opportunity to take online classes was vital to earning both bachelor’s and then master’s degrees at SDSU. Lastly it was part of her doctoral studies through the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

“I started as a typical two plus two (a two-year degree followed by two more years in a four-year program),” Johansen said. “The two-year credentials met my professional needs for a long time, and it filled many important needs in health care staffing. Now we have a need for qualified nurses at all education levels, including a need for nursing education professors with graduate degrees.”

She said the SMSU program, by every indication, is likely to keep multiplying beyond its current alumni total. For fall semester 2019, the enrollment was expanded to 50 students from 25 to cut down on the waiting list, but there was still a need have some applicants wait until spring 2020.

About 20 percent of the SMSU nursing students are male, compared to about 12 percent of all currently practicing nurses. The program attracts interest from online students based in the Twin Cities, which has given it an added amount of racial diversity.

Marshall High School campus nurse Deb Herrmann is one of the professional who frequently supervises SMSU student internships. Through that process, those close to graduation see the many different ways school and public health nurses might interact with different agencies depending on someone’s health-related needs.

As a nurse in a non-medical setting, she often becomes the first professional to look for indications of what might be causing headaches, stomach aches, or other generalized symptoms. When everything’s taken into account, the list of possible causes can include emotional stress, mental health issues, nutrition, chemical dependency, abuse or unplanned pregnancy, among others.

“Two-year nursing graduates are very well trained for clinical procedures, the task oriented checklist processes,” Herrmann said. “Higher levels of nursing education build on that foundation with further education in topics like health care policy, leadership and conflict resolution. I enjoy helping students continue to expand their skills.”

Avera Marshall Foundation Director Abby Ahmann said Avera and other health care employers encourage staff members to consider additional health care-related education. As much as possible, they try to offer work flexibility and sometimes financial assistance.

“When they gain more education, they bring it back to health care facilities and patients,” Ahmann said. “We look for ways to encourage that. We can’t pay all the costs for a degree, but every little bit helps.”

Gerry Toland, SMSU’s Agriculture and Applied Economics Department Chair and a former Interim Dean of Distance Learning, said the nursing program is living up to its potential as a practical 21st century program of studies that combines distance learning with hands-on opportunities.

“There’s been a need for more nurses, and we’ve become part of the effort to meet it,” Toland said. “The program has seen a substantial amount of growth in a short amount of time.”