Chris Chirdo's attraction to the UTA online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing program was magnetic.
The fact that his employer, Baylor Scott & White Health, was pursuing Magnet status and offered tuition reimbursement was what strongly drew him back to higher education.
"I was always that nurse who would say, 'Hey, how much does my paycheck go up if I get a bachelor's degree? Zero. A-ha! Why even bother going?'" Chirdo said. "Now that I'm graduating, I'm like, 'Why didn't I do this sooner?' It was a really challenging but great experience."
So much so that Chirdo is now enrolled in the UTA online Master of Science in Nursing in Nursing Administration program, which he will begin in January 2018.
"I just said, 'If my employer is going to pay for it, I'm going to take every class I possibly can,'" he said. "It's kind of an attitude of, 'Let's strike while the iron is hot.' There is no reason not to."
Chirdo first encountered Baylor Scott & White as a travel nurse a decade ago. He spent a year working at the company's facility in Temple, Texas, and was extremely impressed with the entire operation. He returned as a full-time patient advisory nurse in 2014. Chirdo has been a regional clinic charge nurse for about a year.
"I was living in New York City by myself," he said. "Nurses up there can make $90,000 a year, but it doesn't mean anything because the cost of living is so high. I had a studio apartment, made $90,000 a year and lived paycheck to paycheck. It was horrible.
"Travel nursing was paying big money back then. I had a lot of experience. I said, 'You know what? I'm going to travel the country. I'm going to put myself on tour, call it the 'Chris Chirdo Nursing Tour' or something.'"
After a first stop in Baltimore, Chirdo landed in Texas because he wanted to go someplace where it doesn't snow regularly.
"I said, 'Wow, this is a great hospital and somewhere I could live,'" he said. "The weather was wonderful and the people were nice. Then, I ate some barbecue, and I said, 'I'm buying a house.' I bought the house within three months of being here. Texas is a wonderful place to live."
Chirdo got his feet wet in the healthcare field as a paramedic, which set him on a path to nursing.
"The people I was most impressed with in the hospital were nurses," he said. "They were the ones who were approachable and talkative. Paramedics are wonderful people who provide excellent care and I loved working as one but, unfortunately, salaries are way too low for such important and difficult work.
"With the salary and the idea of not extricating people from vehicles in the 100-degree heat during the summer, I thought nursing might be something I would like. I tried it, went into clinicals, and I've been in love with it ever since."
Chirdo initially learned firsthand about the advantages of Magnet status when his brother was involved in a serious car accident in Pennsylvania and was treated for his injuries by a hospital with Magnet status.
"I asked one of the nurses, 'How long have you been here?'" Chirdo said. "She said, 'I've been here 20 years. This other nurse has been here 13 years.' I said, 'How do you guys retain nurses? What is it about this place that is so great? What is it I'm not getting? Is this the only place to work around here?'
"She said, 'No, absolutely not. We're a Magnet hospital. They get us educated. They pay for us to go to school. Magnet status prioritizes nursing excellence. Nursing is the center of all care.' Once the BSWH CNO here in Temple started talking about tuition reimbursement and becoming a Magnet hospital, the light bulb went off, and I decided to go back to school. I am very blessed to be part of such a progressive organization that prioritizes nursing excellence."
When Chirdo enrolled in the UTA online RN to BSN program in 2015, he had not been in school since he graduated with an associate degree from the College of Staten Island in 1998. He was able to fit the online format into his schedule following a small adjustment period.
"I don't have any children," he said. "I'm just married and really don't have any other responsibilities besides my job and school, so I was able to get the work done. The design of the program made it really easy to learn the process. You're a complete novice and don't have any clue what you're doing initially, and then you become an expert with this material by the time you're done. I am constantly inspired by my full time co-workers who maintain a family and still find the time to be successful in full time employment and school."
Chirdo had even more time to focus on school after his work duties changed.
"Being an emergency room nurse for 14 years and now kind of settling back into ambulatory care, I've got a little bit of a less exhaustive job, so that made a difference," he said. "Becoming a multi-tasker really helped. The emergency department is organized chaos -- you're used to that environment. I didn't go over the assignment or how much work it was; I just sat down and did it."
The flexibility of the online format has also been a big plus for Chirdo.
"I generally spent my Saturdays doing schoolwork," he said. "I took some time here and there to flip through the book during the week. On Wednesday nights, we had discussion posts due, so that took a couple of hours. It wasn't like I wasn't able to have a life, spend time with my wife [Vanessa] and go on trips. I even went to Peru for three weeks. I was able to log in from there, follow my classes and take exams. They make it very easy."
Chirdo's favorite nursing courses in the bachelor's degree program were NURS 3315: Holistic Health Assessment Across the Lifespan and NURS 3375: Health Policy and Legal Aspects of Professional Nursing. In fact, the latter helped him become interested in a possible career change.
"The instructor was a nurse attorney and I was very impressed with her knowledge and ability to make the subject matter interesting," he said. "The only issue with that is I would have to go to law school, and I wouldn't be able to work because the bar doesn't currently approve any online programs to study law. If that happens, I'm totally going to do it."
If not, Chirdo wants to move into a leadership role once he completes the master's program.
"I like the idea of evidence-based leadership or management research for nursing," he said. "Through my own research with the BSN, I feel like it's something that is underutilized in nursing. I think I can contribute by showing some evidence-based leadership and utilizing it to be at the top of an organization. Hopefully, that attitude of support for nurses and leadership excellence will trickle down."
Chirdo has been able to apply some of the knowledge to his current job, as well.
"The other day I wanted to get some literature and do some research on an issue, so the nursing research classes really made it easy to locate literature," he said. "I've done that not only for patient issues and managerial issues in the clinic I currently manage, I have done that for issues regarding my own health.
"Thanks to my UTA training, I was able to log in to the library at the school and get some recent evidence-based articles about it that told me the facts about what the research is showing, and I was able to make decisions that are evidence-based. That's something that is extremely helpful."
Things have come together quite nicely for Chirdo since he moved to the Lone Star State. He has a great career, a wonderful wife and plenty of encouragement from his friends for his academic endeavors.
"My parents have been telling me to do it for about 20 years now," Chirdo said. "I have very supportive friends and family. Vanessa has been extremely supportive. If I said, 'Hey, I'm working on an advanced degree,' and anybody said, 'I don't think that's a good idea,' I don't think I would be friends with them."
Now, he is clearly a firm believer in online education.
"If you got through the clinical portion and you passed the boards, you most certainly can do this," Chirdo said. "It might seem at times like, 'What do I need to know that for?' You'll realize in the end, it will all come together.
"The capstone really brought it all together and brought it all home. It was like, 'Oh, that's why we did that' or, 'Look how much I've learned.' Take your time. Do it as slowly as you want or as quickly as you need to, but don't panic. You can do this."
Thankfully for Chirdo and his career, that nudge he needed to earn a BSN came along.
"If you will pay for me to take a class that can eventually affect my career to where I could be more successful with patients, more successful with my institution, more respected and, of course, make more money, there's absolutely no reason to not go back to school," he said. "Yeah, it's a little harder and extra work, but it's free. What more can we ask? That they bring the teachers to us, to our houses? How could it be any more convenient?"
Learn more about the UTA online RN to BSN program.
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