Fittingly, a medical condition led Joan Burnham to a nursing career.
"When I was growing up, I wanted to be a mortician because I wanted to have a career that was recession-proof," she said. "Unfortunately, I am highly allergic to flowers. After I spent two weeks volunteering at a local funeral home, the funeral director said, 'You can't do this. You have to find some other thing to do.'"
Burnham then got a job as an aide in a nursing home her senior year of high school, where the work drew a much better reaction than flowers did.
"I just fell in love with it," she said. "Having that one-on-one care and making a difference on a one-on-one basis with someone, even with the littlest things you could do for them, clinched it for me."
Burnham, a staff nurse at Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital for the last eight years, is enrolled in the online Master of Science in Nursing in Education program offered by the University of Texas at Arlington. She graduated from UTA's online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in 2014.
"I had such a good experience with the accelerated RN to BSN program that when the Master of Science in Nursing Education became available online, it was a great opportunity that was doable with my work schedule," she said. "I was able to switch to 12-hour shifts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Then, I could have time Monday through Thursday to do schoolwork."
Even though she had been out of college for nearly 30 years, the flexibility of the asynchronous format helped Burnham seamlessly transition into online education.
"I'm a self-motivated learner," she said. "When I started working for an oncologist back in 1989, there wasn't a lot of support for learning about chemotherapy and oncology other than a book. Being able to control my schedule in the online program and be on top of it made it very easy for me. It also helps that my kids are grown, and my husband, Vernon, is an absolutely fabulous help."
Joan with her night shift crew
Burnham has had a versatile career that includes working in office, hospice, home health, acute care and educational settings. Once she completes the online MSN program, Burnham hopes to transition back into nursing education.
"I've been a nurse for 32 years," she said. "The physical aspect of patient care is becoming more intense through a 12-hour shift, and I am getting older. It doesn't match well. I love to teach. I love to share my knowledge with new nurses. I love to learn.
"I want to understand so that I can explain to patients, 'This is what we're doing, and this is why we're doing it.' As nurses, a lot of our job is to advocate for the patient. I wanted to make sure I was giving them accurate, complete information so that they could make an informed decision for what was right for their life."
Although she is keeping her options open, Burnham would love to teach nursing at the higher education level.
"Having gone through the online component for two degrees now, I feel an affinity for those types of learners," she said. "But I also like the hands-on nature of clinical education. I'll find out with my practicum in a hospital how that works out."
Burnham will do the practicum at Houston Methodist West Hospital, a sister hospital of Houston Methodist Willowbrook.
"I'm going to have Simulation Application in January (2018), and I am totally fascinated by simulation because I've never had it," she said. "I know people who went back and got their doctorate in simulation for education. There's just a whole, wide variety of options. I'm hoping to learn more as I get closer to the end of the program and finish my practicum."
Although she has a wealth of experience in nursing, Burnham still learned plenty in the online nursing programs from UTA. Her two favorite MSN courses were NURS 5327: Exploration of Science and Theories for Nursing and NURS 5310: Teaching/Learning Theories, Strategies, and Evaluation.
"I loved nursing theory," she said. "I know a lot of nurses don't get into that, but finding out where our profession started out and what the basis is of our practice is fascinating."
The latter opened Burnham's eyes to the different methods she will be able to apply once she makes the career shift.
"Because I'm not a teacher by background, I liked learning the different ways to share education," she said. "I fell in love with concept maps. I'm obsessed with concept maps now.
"I also learned about using QR codes to set up videos to help people because smartphones are what we're doing now. You have QR codes where you can link a video that teaches a concept to anybody who has a cell phone and can just scan it. I just love that. Smartphones are not going away."
Burnham is also impressed with how much UTA's online nursing programs are designed to help students succeed.
"They try to accommodate flexible, alternate schedules by having recorded Zoom meetings or having recorded lectures," she said. "That has helped. UTA also has a lot of partnerships and contacts with hospitals here in Houston. That has made it really easy for those of us who are down here to do our practicum and our clinical time because we have those things in place."
Burnham has received a lot of encouragement from her friends, family members and coworkers.
"Everyone I work with says, 'Oh, you'll be a fabulous educator. You love to do that,'" she said. "Everybody's been hugely supportive. Right now, we're getting close to the end, so the question is, 'What are you going to do?' I am not sure. There are so many different places to take it."
As an added bonus, she has also developed a camaraderie with her fellow online students.
"You need to make sure you have a current computer and that you're comfortable with not having face-to-face contact for the online program," Burnham said. "Some people need that community. Those of us in this particular group have found a great community as we've gone through Hurricane Harvey. My fellow students have been amazing."
With three courses remaining to complete the MSN program, Burnham looks forward to graduation day, which will also make her sister, Theresa Berend, very happy.
"Theresa is ecstatic. She is a UTA alumna, and she keeps ordering me T-shirts that say 'UTA Nursing,'" Burnham said. "She was upset because I did not walk the stage when I got my BSN."
Burnham is happy to appease Theresa by attending graduation -- as long as her sister doesn't bring her a congratulatory bouquet of flowers.
Learn more about UTA's online nursing programs.
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