By Seena Simon
The last time nurse Karen Migl was enrolled in a “distance education” program, her education was heavy on the distance.
Back in the 1990s, Migl (pronounced MEE-gl), a resident of Nacogdoches, drove four hundred miles round trip from her home in Deep East Texas to attend the master’s degree program in nursing at UTMB in Galveston.
“I’ve already worn out one set of tires going to UTMB,” Migl said.
Now assistant director of the nursing program at Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) in Nacogdoches, Migl is one of four East Texas students enrolled in the UTMB School of Nursing’s new distance-education Ph.D. program.
This time, Migl needn’t put any miles on her fire-engine-red pickup truck. She has to walk only a few steps from her SFA office to attend interactive classes that UTMB broadcasts to a classroom down the hall.
Without the video broadcasts from UTMB, these nursing educators, all married with children and full-time jobs, likely wouldn’t have been able to embark on a doctoral program at this point in their lives. Three teach nursing at SFA; the fourth directs the nursing program at nearby two-year Angelina College in Lufkin.
The program will improve the quality of nursing education in East Texas, said Director Alice Hill. Doctoral faculty’s knowledge and insight on research and theory will filter down to their undergraduate students, she continued.
Stacie Hitt, former associate dean for academic programs at UTMB’s School of Nursing, added: “It brings a richer flavor to the students’ experience when they have someone who is actively engaged in research, who has been exposed to coursework and actual practical experience in theory, in health policy, in health care ethics.”
Ph.D. student Sharon Buffalo, director of the nursing program at Angelina College, added, “We need Ph.D. faculty in the community colleges.”
The East Texas doctoral students interact seamlessly with their UTMB instructors and other doctoral students in Galveston. Students at SFA and Galveston can see and talk to each other and, by speaking into microphones, may simultaneously participate in class discussions.
During one class last October, students in Nacogdoches attended class in a room normally used to teach SFA’s undergraduate nursing students.
From Galveston, Associate Professor of Nursing Darlene “Cheyenne” Martin guided students through discussions and class presentations in her history and philosophy of science class. Martin made a concerted effort to involve the Nacogdoches students in question-and-answer sessions.
“It feels like a classroom, and we feel like they’re a part of it,” Martin said.
SFA Nursing Instructor and Ph.D. student Debbie Arnold said the distinction between being an in-person student in Galveston and a distance-education student in Nacogdoches evokes the old “Is it live or is it Memorex?” commercials: It’s almost as good as being there.
UTMB has received temporary approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to offer two Ph.D. distance classes to the Nacogdoches students, all of whom are enrolled part-time. UTMB is seeking formal accreditation for the Ph.D. distance program.
“This is a laudable and extremely valuable program.”
The cooperative program was the brainchild of SFA Nursing Program Director Glenda Walker. She holds a doctorate of science in nursing (D.S.N., comparable to a Ph.D.) from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and had been working to bring a Ph.D. program to Deep East Texas for five years. When Walker joined SFA in 1992, she was the only faculty member with a doctorate. Now, SFA has three other faculty members with doctorates, and six more are working toward the terminal degree, either through UTMB or the nursing Ph.D. program at Texas Woman’s University in Denton.
No college near Nacogdoches offers a Ph.D. nursing program, and it’s a struggle for rural communities such as this one to lure Ph.D.-level faculty from across the country.
Walker’s solution? “We’re growing our own.”
She surmised that nurses living nearby would be the best candidates to get Ph.D.s and stay in the area as nurse educators. Of the thirty-three students in the East Texas area who earned their master’s in nursing via UTMB’s distance-education program, only one has left the area, Walker said.
“History has taught us that if you bring the degree to them, they stay in the East Texas area,” Walker said.
Arnold agreed. “We’re here, we’re embedded,” she said of her own family’s plans to stay put.
Geraldine Bednash, executive director of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, congratulated UTMB for increasing access to a Ph.D. curriculum through innovative programs like distance education. “This is a laudable and extremely valuable program,” Bednash said.
Student Arnold, forty-five, and classmate Karen O’Brien, thirty-three, wound up as SFA nursing instructors almost by accident. Arnold thought she and O’Brien would open a clinical nursing practice after they both finished their master’s degrees in nursing, completed through UTMB’s distance-education program. Instead, immediately after they finished their degrees in December 2002, SFA hired Arnold and O’Brien to teach bachelor’s program students.
“I love school; I love teaching,” O’Brien said. “If I teach my students well, that exponentially increases the number of nurses I can help.”