In 1981, Denise Stearley graduated with an associate’s degree in nursing. “
I always wanted to pursue a bachelor’s,” says Stearley, “but then life happened, there were kids, I was working, I could never make it work. Plus, cost was an issue.”
A Varied Career
Initially, not having a BSN didn’t hold her back. Stearley’s career was varied, starting work in medical-surgical nursing before eventually moving on to various units including post-orthopedic surgery, critical care, and occupational health.
From there she became a school nurse, but when the position was to be eliminated a few years after the economic downturn of 2008, she began looking for other job opportunities. A position as a care manager at the Veteran’s Administration (VA) appealed to her, and she moved into that role in 2011.
A Necessary Bachelor’s
At the VA, Stearley worked with a mentor for whom she has great respect. “She’s a great mentor and was a great fit for me. After I’d been there for a couple of years, she said I should apply for her job when she retired, but I would need a bachelor’s degree.”
That was easier said than done. Stearley lives in rural Arizona, where universities are long distances away. She researched both online and traditional schools, sorting through programs and costs. In the midst of this research, someone told her about a scholarship program for nurses offered by the VA, which required her to have a letter of acceptance in hand in order to apply.
“By then, I’d done the research, and I was interested in Capella,” she says. “Capella was outstanding during the application process. They really helped me out, going way above and beyond.” In 2013, 32 years after getting her associate’s, she was awarded the scholarship and started in Capella’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN-to-BSN) program.
Juggling Education and Life
All the life challenges that had prevented her from going back to school earlier were still in play. “I was working 50-60 hours a week and going to school full-time. It was challenging.” How did she manage? “I looked at the big picture and planned. Or I’d work ahead over holiday weekends, that sort of thing.”
She admits it was stressful. “To be honest, I complained a lot in that year and a half. I have four grandkids, and it was hard to take time away from them for schoolwork.” But her efforts not only paid off with a degree, she found her grandkids learned something from her, too. As an encouragement to entice her younger sister to go to school one said, “Grandma’s old and she has to go to school.”
Applying Education to Work
When asked which competencies Stearley learned in her program were transferable to her work, she says, “100% of what I learned, I use all the time.” Her work at the VA dovetailed with what she was learning, whether about general nursing, research and statistics, the problem of influenza, or conditions related to Agent Orange. “I was able to use relevant information from coursework to make me a better nurse for the VA.”
While still in school, Stearley moved into a supervisory role. She finished her BSN program in March 2015, and in the summer of that year, was promoted to assistant manager. What does the future hold? “Maybe I will become a manager in the few years before I retire. I’d like to get a master’s, but I plan on retiring in 5-6 years, while I’m still young and healthy enough to enjoy it.” She notes that part of her wish for a master’s degree is due to the experience she had at Capella. “I miss school now—the discussions, the challenges,” she says. “The instructors are approachable, and they really understand the stresses we’re all under.”
Her advice for potential students of all ages: “I wish I’d pursued my BSN earlier. Potential students should be unafraid to go ahead and take that leap. Life will continue no matter what. You’re not too old. What I learned at Capella made me a better nurse, and has had a positive impact on my career.”
Learn more about Capella’s Bachelor’s in Nursing degree program.