A crowning moment for York’s School of Nursing

Above: Patsy Cho, Lisa-Anne Hagerman and Fran Wolfe graduated Saturday (Photo by Jessica Chin)

Three women made history Saturday when they strode across the podium under the big white tent to accept their degrees at York’s Fall Convocation ceremony. They were the first to receive graduate degrees from York’s School of Nursing and are already parlaying their hard-won credentials to forge positions of leadership in nursing practice and education.

Patsy Cho, Lisa-Anne Hagerman and Fran Wolfe were all highly experienced nurses when they signed up for York’s new master’s program for nurses in May 2005. Their qualifications and experience couldn’t have been more different. But they shared a driving ambition to complete this bold new course — and move in a new direction. Despite families and jobs, they opted for the fast track – studying full time and graduating in a whirlwind 14 months. They could have enrolled in the part-time stream and taken three or four years to graduate. But they were able to manage because the program is delivered mostly online, designed to accommodate multitasking and time-deprived professionals just like them.

“This is a very momentous occasion and we’re very proud of these first graduates,” said Gail Mitchell, director of York’s Graduate Program in Nursing. “We’re excited about their future in health and healthcare. We know they’re going to be leaders, especially leaders who are critical thinkers. That’s what York’s program is all about.”

Until a few months ago, there were four who would graduate but circumstances pulled one away. They called themselves the Four Musketeers. And even though they rarely saw one another, they came to know each other well by e-mail. On Saturday, Cho, Hagerman and Wolfe came together to receive their graduate degrees, reward for 14 intense and exhilarating months in York’s innovative and pioneering new nursing program.

Patsy Cho

Patsy Cho, a cardiac nurse at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, earned a nursing degree from the University of British Columbia when the profession focused on tasks, and patients were cared for using a systems approach. “It was very dehumanizing,” remembers Cho, who has 15 years’ frontline experience. She worked as a nurse for 10 years then left to go into business, as an accountant, auditor, consultant and coffee-shop owner. Five years ago, she resumed employment as a full-time nurse.

She soon began seeking new challenges by taking courses and doing extra projects. “I felt it was time for me to combine everything I know and move in a new direction,” she says. In 2003, she won a fellowship from the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario to learn more about women’s cardiac health. The next year, she served as a clinical instructor at the University of Toronto for six months. Though she was leaping at opportunities to grow professionally in her own realm, she felt restricted, she says. “I could continue doing little projects but to go further I needed more education.”

She began looking around for graduate nursing programs and discovered York’s. “The philosophy appealed to me. I liked the slant on interpersonal aspects of nursing.” It offered her something novel — nursing theory — a humanistic approach and convenient online delivery. “Because of the hours I work, I thought it was a program I could do and continue doing my job.” Still it was tough. “I hardly slept,” she says. “My husband was extremely supportive. I’m not sure I could have finished in the 14-month time frame had he not been there.” But Cho believes it was worth it. She is confident her new credentials will open the door to new opportunities.

Lisa-Anne Hagerman

Since she earned a diploma in nursing from Fleming College in 1987, Lisa-Anne Hagerman has never stopped adding credentials after her name. She has so many, she recently had to redesign her business card to squeeze in her latest – an MScN from York. The daughter of a nurse and a teacher, she realized early in her nursing career that she also had the talent and desire to teach. So while she was working full time as a nurse in Kingston, she attended Queen’s University full time and earned a bachelor of nursing science in 1991.

She worked so hard, she barely recalls the experience. She does remember how much she enjoyed working with students at the hospital, however. So she enrolled in the graduate education program at York while working part time at Peterborough Civic Hospital in her hometown. Government cutbacks and little prospect of full-time nursing jobs led her to abandon both for life as a nurse traveller in the United States for the next 10 years. The contract work gave her the flexibility to pursue an MBA in health care administration and later a doctorate in education from Argosy University in Florida — and to accept temporary teaching posts at Canadian colleges. In 2003, she returned for good to teach at the Trent Fleming School of Nursing, where she was nominated twice by students for teaching awards.

When she found out about York’s graduate degree program in nursing, she leapt at a chance to improve her understanding of nursing theory and research. “I’m just a nurse who wants to teach,” she says. She liked the online component of York’s program and saw the content as supporting her goals. “The curriculum is fantastic. The teachers are phenomenal,” says Hagerman. “The course changed my whole perspective on nursing.” For the first time, she felt excited about what she was learning. “Nurses are more than practitioners at the bedside, they are change agents and patient advocates who can identify in hospitals and in the community things that need to be addressed to provide safe, effective care. It’s a very empowering perspective.” Now the multi-credentialed intensive-care specialist is finally where she wants to be — teaching full-time in the McMaster/Conestoga/Mohawk collaborative BScN program at Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning.

Fran Wolfe

Wolfe has been nursing for 36 years and is a geriatric clinician in the emergency department at North York General Hospital. When the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario required nurses to have university degrees, she decided to upgrade her diploma. “I thought, if all the young nurses had a bachelor of science in nursing, I needed it for job security.” The real reason is she wanted to stay working in a teaching hospital and needed a more formal education. She enrolled at York and earned her undergraduate nursing degree in 2004. Her appetite for learning was whetted. “I loved the formal education part of it – the critical thinking, the rush of information, the literature. It just heightened my enthusiasm and love of learning.”

When the award-winning student heard about York’s new master’s program, she signed up immediately. Her husband nearly divorced her. “I hardly had any time to breathe.” She worked full time five days a week at the hospital, then spent every evening and every weekend doing the required reading and assignments. Her husband missed her (she knew she was in trouble when he booked a cruise for one) but her three 20-something children viewed her as a role model. She persisted. “I think as adult learners there is a commitment, you’re motivated, you become very organized. “I never complain. ‘I’m too tired’ never flies in our house.”) She lost 50 pounds. She put aside her romance novels and family life knowing it was short term. “You give up a lot, but you reap a lot of benefits in the end.” Ill health kept her aging parents from attending her first York convocation two years ago, but they made it for her second. “I wanted to graduate so my parents would see me.”

Wolfe’s still working full time at the hospital but, twitchy with all her free time, she’s also teaching a fourth-year nursing course at York on global health and healing – and loving it. Her husband has booked a cruise for the two of them in December. And after that, Wolfe may swing back into the academic saddle. She’s thinking of doctoral studies or a law degree specializing in health.

The MScN program

Since 2005, registered nurses require a bachelor of science degree in nursing to practise in Ontario. As a result, there has been a huge demand for nursing-degree programs and “significant pressure on more nurses to get graduate degrees,” says Mitchell. York’s master’s program was set up in response to the anticipated increased demand for upgraded credentials.

Launched in May 2005 by Beryl Pilkington (see YFile Feb. 7, 2005), it has attracted about 36 students so far. About a third are full time and the rest part time. Most are nursing educators who have more time in the summer to study – hence the unique May intake – but the program is also geared to nursing managers and nurses in advanced-practice roles. The majority come from the Toronto area, but because the program is online, students have also enrolled from Thunder Bay and Halifax.

The online delivery sets it apart from other similar programs. So does its philosophy of nursing. “Our program is unique because it is driven by the human science philosophy,” says Mitchell, acting graduate nursing program director. The human science approach takes into account the whole person, not just the person’s body, parts or symptoms. “We teach health care based on partnerships and relationships,” says Mitchell. “This approach is contrary to the traditional clinical model. We’re preparing grads to be better at relationship building.”

Courses in the MScN program include theoretical/philosophical foundations of nursing, two research courses (one each on qualitative and quantitative methods), and an advanced nursing practicum, in which students are encouraged to focus their learning in one of the following areas of faculty expertise: teaching-learning in nursing; community and global health; nursing theory/arts-informed practice; and, visionary leadership.