Diane Werner heard a calling to nursing until a comment from a high school teacher silenced it for decades.
“The teacher said, ‘You have to be really smart to be a nurse. I think that you would be a better teacher,” Werner said.
Fast forward to 2009, when Werners employer relocated to Arizona and offered to move her family so she could keep her secretarial job. With her husbands encouragement, Werner stayed in her New Jersey home and started working on her BSN at the Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions in Philadelphia. At 47, nearly 30 years after that teachers crushing remark, she has a 3.67 GPA and is on track to graduate in June.
Werner reclaimed her goal and advises other older aspiring nurses to do the same.
Whether working on delayed dreams or reinventing themselves by seeking a second or third career, middle-aged nursing students said their age is an asset. Juggling hectic schedules while hitting the books in your 40s, 50s and 60s requires commitment, time management skills and a supportive network that includes family, friends and co-workers.
Older adults are highly motivated and bring life experiences and focus to class, said Patricia Dillon, RN, PhD, director for graduate nursing and RN-BSN and RN-MSN programs at La Salle University in Philadelphia. They want to advance their careers because of the job market and economy, Dillon said. “They are not too distracted with the things other college students are distracted with,” she said.
Just how many adults older than 40 are attending nursing programs nationwide is unclear. Student-age data is not collected by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. “Anecdotally, I do hear that many adults are transitioning into nursing after having a career in another field,” said Robert Rosseter, chief communications officer for AACN. “Accelerated programs are perfect vehicles for adults looking to transition since they build on previous learning experiences.”
A life of purpose
Stephanie Reeves, 44, is working toward earning a BSN this fall from Drexels Accelerated Career Entry nursing program. She said she decided not to pursue nursing as an undergraduate student after her college adviser told her minorities did not do well in natural sciences. Fearing the loss of scholarships, she switched majors and said she “drifted into [information technology]because I thought I could earn a good living, which I did, but it wasnt my passion.”
After a couple of layoffs, she said, she decided to follow a new path. Her goal is to work for the World Health Organization. “I have a real passion for underserved communities and people who dont have good access to healthcare,” Reeves said.
Making a difference is one of the reasons Debra Kossman, 54, enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursings Accelerated BSN/MSN Program in Philadelphia. She has a PhD in social psychology and is a senior vice president at National Analysts Worldwide. But the world needs good nursing care, Kossman said.
“An awful lot of what goes wrong with patient care are things RNs are well equipped to deliver, but they have been in short supply and overworked,” Kossman said. “People my age can make a contribution.”
Kossman, an aspiring nurse practitioner, also is practical.
“I dont think Medicare and Social Security are going to be things anybody can count on carrying them through their retirement,” said Kossman, who works full time and attends nursing school part time. “I think being employable for a long time is a wise thing to do.”
Older students advise middle-aged adults who are considering a return to school to be mindful of the stress that comes with juggling family, work and life. For Werner, another advantage of returning to school later in life is setting an example for her children. Everyone in her family has to make sacrifices.
“They recognize I might not be able to do all the things I did before because I am studying or working,” she said. “My children also get to see that hard work pays off. It is not uncommon for me to dance around bragging when I do well or for my kids to console me when I dont. This has been a growing and learning experience for my entire family.” •