Returning to School for Nursing

"I was motivated by helping people in a concrete and meaningful way and was drawn to issues of health and wellness."

A Non-Traditional Journey to RN Licensure

By Heidi Brandon RN BSN

Why Nursing?

I have been asked this many times over the years since deciding to become an RN. A hundred nurses will give you a hundred different answers from “It’s a calling” to “job security”. Some people figure out they want to be a nurse at a young age. It took me a few years to figure out what I wanted to do. I started out in a completely different career only to enroll in a BSN program later on.

I came from a family of healthcare providers, yet I initially resisted the idea of working in healthcare. I wanted to find my own niche, not just continue in the “family business”. I graduated from college with a BA, worked out in the real world, and attended a graduate school Back East in hopes of obtaining a teaching position at a college or university. Two years later, I found myself disillusioned, struggling, and questioning my path.

My lack of success, though painful, taught me something essential about myself: I was motivated by helping people in a concrete and meaningful way and was drawn to issues of health and wellness. Once I realized what motivated me, things fell into place.

I made the decision to leave my graduate program and switch to a career in healthcare. After researching, interviewing, and shadowing several healthcare professionals, I decided nursing would be the best fit for me.

I took a leap, applied to a program, and never looked back.

Taking on the Nursing Process

Every nurse will tell you that getting through nursing school is a process and takes determination–no matter what path brings you there.

At age 26, I enrolled in a BSN nursing program as a returning adult student. I transferred some credits from a previously earned BA but I had to complete some prerequisite biology and chemistry before I was accepted into the program. (I previously took mainly social science and foreign language classes.)

As I nervously attended my first classes, I looked around at the sea of Millenial faces, briefly regretting my decision to be totally honest! The age difference was not that great, but I still felt old and out-of-place.

The campus was so much larger than what I was used to, and I feared getting lost! I carried a map for a long time, but eventually, I got to know my way around. In good weather, I took the city bus or biked from my apartment on the other side of town. Housing rentals near campus were sky-high, but on the other side of town, prices were more reasonable. I had a car but tried not to drive to class. Parking was just too pricey near campus.

Not living on or near campus not only made for long days, it made getting to Clinicals a little more complicated. It forced me to be more organized and socially outgoing. Sometimes, I would get a carpool going.

When I left in the morning, my backpack was heavily loaded down with everything I might need for the day. (A good backpack is essential!)

I became an expert at bus schedules, bike routes, the cheapest places to eat lunch, and the best place to take a quick cat nap between classes. In nursing school sleep became a precious commodity and I would sleep any chance I could get.

Finding Strength in Being Non-Traditional

Much to my relief, I soon began to meet other students who, like me, didn’t fit the norm. I was surprised and grateful to connect with the handful of other non-traditional students I met along the way. (One of the first things you learn as a nurse is that the word normal isn't always the best word for documenting, because it's not specific enough!) I realized there were a lot of students just like me.

In 2014, 42% of students attending associate programs, and 18% of students enrolled in BSN programs were over age 30 .

(NLN Biennial Survey of Schools of Nursing, 2014)

We instinctively formed a tight group and supported each other throughout the program–and even after graduation. My fellow classmates included an LPN going for a BSN and other students who, like me, were changing careers. Some students were married and had children. Another student, as I recall, struggled with a debilitating autoimmune disorder.

Despite these distractions outside of school, we all rarely missed a lecture. In fact, we often seemed to congregate in the first few rows of lecture halls together. We were in school to get a degree, succeed, and get to work–to move our lives forward.

Family, work, lectures, and studying filled our days and nights. We supported each other academically and emotionally. I got along with, and respected, all the students in our program, but I especially connected with those whose struggles I could relate to. This is the strength of the diversity in the nursing profession.

Nursing school was challenging–yet more rewarding than I expected. I worked part-time when I could, and I took out student loans to make ends meet. I worried about my accumulating debt and my ability to pay it off after graduation. As I succeeded in class and made friends, feelings of hope for my future began to replace feeling lost and out-of-place.

The real turning point for me came when we started our clinical assignments and practice labs....

Once I began practicing my skills and working with patients, I knew I’d made the right choice.

My real-world experience and maturity gave me a strong foundation for classwork as well as for working and connecting with patients of various ages and backgrounds. I experienced a broad range of clinical settings from community health to surgical nursing. Gaining perspective is what community assignments are all about.

My favorite clinical site took me to the Ho-Chunk Nation tribal lands where we worked with children at a Head Start program and with patients in their homes.

It took me just over 2 years to earn my BSN. I passed my NCLEX licensing exam and immediately started as a licensed nurse intern on a busy inpatient unit at a university hospital. The paid internship, a precursor to what is now called a Nurse Residency Program, was essential to further developing the skills and confidence I would need to succeed in my first job out of school through practice and mentorship.

I highly recommend applying for an internship. It helped to guide my transition from entry-level knowledge to autonomous RN.

Innovations in Nursing Education

According to the American Council on Education, 60% of college undergrads are post-traditional learners. Resources have expanded to assist the number of non-traditional students.

ANTSHE, is a national organization devoted to supporting non-traditional students of all types. In addition, many academic institutions have a special department to assist with non-traditional students’ particular needs.

Today, students have several options for completing a BSN. Online programs offer flexibility, and with accelerated programs, a BSN can be completed in 12 months! There are online resources and organizations to guide and assist returning adult nursing students to navigate everything from choosing a school and applying to programs, to evaluating financial aid, and handling the pressures of having a family and working while in school.

I’m excited about the opportunities for current and future returning adult nursing students. I wish I had the resources and options available to me that exist in today’s world. I can’t even imagine what innovations are on the horizon for the future!

Guest Blogger Bio

Heidi Brandon, RN BSN lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her human family and a variety of other critters. She has worked for 19 years as a nurse in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Currently, she is writing, raising kids, and planning her next career move!

Featured Image Attribution

Courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Ariel Owings on May 8, 2018 retrieved from here