When "Old Dogs" go Back to School

Submitted by Mary Ellen Buechel Holbrook

Tags: Bachelor's degree education family nursing leadership PACU stress


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About four years ago, in the year 2011, I entertained the thought of going back to school for my BSN. I already had a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Florida State, but only possessed an Associate’s degree in Nursing from Georgia State. Fortunately, having a Bachelor’s degree has been enough to keep me on the clinical ladder at my hospital, but over the past year, the thought of having BSN after my name has “dogged me”. And yes, at the mature age of 62, I considered myself, an “old dog”.

Once I decided it was about time, I went on-line and applied to St. Petersburg College. Several of my friends were already taking classes at St. Petersburg, so I thought; “why not”? Well, this was just the first of several challenges. I had previously attended six different colleges,and I had no idea how frustrating it would be just requesting all my transcripts. You would think it’d be great to have a transcript hot-line, but no such thing! I was able to request only two transcriptson-line, two via written request, and the other two, I called and was transferred; I lost track of how many times. After six weeks of waiting and religiously checking my new SPC email, calling and emailing the same contact people; my transcripts were received. “What do youmean I need Statistics, I know I took it at Georgia State”? “It’s not on my transcript?” I was beginning to feel like I was on my way to grandmother’s house, and it wasn’t just through the woods; it was through a very dense woods. So, I signed up for Statistics on-line. When I told my friends at work, I’d signed up for the on-line class,just about everybody told me I was crazy. Only one person, another Mary by name, said “Mary Ellen, I have faith in you, you’re going to do great”. Grateful that Tampa General was paying for my class, I sent in my final paperwork. Then, I spent two hours in line at SPC, just to buy my book. The suspense was building until days before class was to start; I checked my SPC email and I saw my start date for class as June 2012, not August, 2011! I wanted to cry. I was “over it”. I wanted to call it quits. I emailed an advisor, and was assured it was a mistake. So, it was August 22nd, I was at work just after 9AM and I went on-line half-heartedly to check again. I took a step back and caught my breath. There was the first introductory communication from my instructor; class was “in-session”. Our first assignment was due August 29th. Abruptly, the moment was over, reality again prevailed as my first post-op patient arrived in my slot.

I made a 100 on my first quiz and was absolutely ecstatic, for a very short period of time. As the weeks passed, sodid my free time.My stress level would climb to all-time highs as each week I’ddownload a full page with the assignment for the coming week. I would experience the stress of studying twenty to twenty five hours a week, then taking my quizzes on-line; feeling a sense of dread and making the sign of the cross before hitting the “submit” button.

In the brief seconds that passed, my emotions would change from a feeling of doom, to utter fist-pumping elation, or despair; but always with resolve. My family tried to be understanding, but as the weeks passed, and I was more MIA than present, it “got a little old”. I then realized that time management was the key. I resolved to study every spare minute and then take an extra day off occasionally, so I could spend more time with my family and still meet my statistical deadlines. The midterm came and went; the months that were left turned into weeks. I started working out two-three times a week with my daughter, and that not only gave us a little extra time together, but actually helped to quell my stress level while giving me some much needed energy, to study. Fortunately, our instructor was kind enough to put many versions of the practice final on-line. I took the practice final ten times, so as I marched in to take the proctored final at SPC; the very first day it was offered, I knew I was ready. Funny thing, the last question on the final was “are you glad this course is over”, true or false. I pondered a few seconds before decidedly clicking on the true button; for this marked the end of not only the course, but a chapter in my life that actually changed me.

Now, there was one last assignment entitled; ”what did you learn”? Well, certainly, I gained a wealth of statistical knowledge, but more importantly, I learned to appreciate free time like never before. l learned how much I really meant to my family. Lastly, before taking this class on-line, I don’t think I fully grasped what my mind was actually capable of! Oh, and I almost forgot, I ended up making an A. My next step was to take eight months off and start the actual BSN program in the fall of 2012. Realizing I’d be 64 when I graduated, I also knew that I’d be nowhere near retiring. To me, nursing is a life-long career. I’ll retire when I just can’t move any more.

So, to all you “old dogs” out there, ponder the thought no more. If you’re thinking of going back to school for your BSN; do it! The wave of the future is actually upon us. As our field strives towards increased professionalism, and more hospitals gain magnet status, attaining our BSN will not just be a choice; it will be a requirement.

Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ll take heed of a few important things to do first. If you’re on any kind of clinical ladder, complete as much as you can before starting your classes. Discuss the decision with your family, and when they ask, “why”, tell them it’s inevitable. Most importantly, realize that; you can do it, no matter how long you’ve been out of school. Going back to college for your BSN will be a journey, not an easy one, but nonetheless, a journey filled with excitement, and yes, lots of stress. But, I’m willing to bet, after each semester is over, it’ll feel like another chapter in your book of life, that still has many exciting pages to turn.

Well, fast-forward…I graduated last August from the University of South Florida, and am now the Unit Based Educator for our PACU. All the hard work and stress was well worth it. I’m living my career dream, being an educator while still doing bedside nursing. Some of the concepts I learned while in the education “cluster” at USF, have helped me in developing and organizing educational programs in my PACU.

In the field of nursing, attaining a Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees can open doors that would otherwise be shut. According to (Martin, 2013), the opportunity to work in nursing leadership roles, to attain specialty credentials, and to have broader clinician and management jobs with more responsibility, generally rest with BSN degree nurses.

In short, to any other “old dogs” out there who are still hesitating about entering a Bachelor’s degree program, remember; in the field of nursing, age is not the defining or limiting factor. We are limited only by our inhibitions and fear. The path to a higher degree is lined with uncertainty, and hard work. But the knowledge gained, and the opportunities that await, make it the path you will never regret taking.


  1. Martin, D. (2013). Degree completion: Why, what and how much. Retrieved from http://nursetogether.com