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Barbara Shirley Makes Most of Tough Situation by Returning to College

U.S. Air Force veteran and UTA online nursing student Barbara Shirley

U.S. Air Force veteran Barbara Shirley turned misfortune into an opportunity to take care of unfinished business. With 40 years of experience under her belt, she enrolled in the Master of Science in Nursing in Nursing Education online program at the University of Texas at Arlington in Summer 2018.

“I had a health issue that is now resolved, so I found myself out of work for a while,” she said. “I decided to finally go back to college. I started a master’s degree program in the 1980s and always regretted not finishing.”

Shirley graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Texas in 1977. She spent the bulk of her career as an intensive care unit nurse in the Methodist Healthcare System in San Antonio.

“The online format is manageable,” she said. “I could definitely go back to work when I’m ready. I want to go into teaching. I have taught informally at the hospital.”

Having to embrace technology was the biggest obstacle Shirley faced with starting the online MSN in Nursing Education program.

“I had a real learning curve, so I probably spend more time on school than most people,” she said. “When I did my BSN and even back in the 1980s, we didn’t do anything online. This has been a completely new experience. Even though I have charted and used computers at work, I had not written much on the computer. I had no idea how to cut and paste, but I think I have got the hang of it now.”

Danke Schön

Shirley grew up in a military family and spent most of her childhood in Houston. After graduating from the University of Texas, she served in the Air Force for eight-and-a-half years and left as a captain.

“I’ve been a nurse for such a long time,” she said. “I jokingly say it’s because I didn’t want to have to finish German. As I’ve grown older, I’m proud to be a nurse. A lot of my friends are going back and becoming nurse practitioners. I wish it would have been more available back when I was younger.”

In addition to being certified as a critical care nurse and a surgical nurse, Shirley is a past president of the San Antonio American Association of Critical-Care Nurses and has been a board member of the Texas Peer Assistance Program for Nurses for a decade.

“I have been around for a long time,” she said. “I made fun of Nursing Theory when I took it back in the 80s. It was like, ‘Is nursing a sphere or is nursing a circle?’ It had no relevance to modern things. I feel it’s more grounded these days.”

Shirley started a master’s degree program at UT San Antonio the first time she went back to school. Once she decided to give it another shot, she remained in the University of Texas system.

“I was impressed with the UT name,” she said. “UTA online seemed like it had a bigger presence than some of the other online programs within the UT system. I met the recruiter and it was easy to get started. I finally decided, ‘Well, I’ll go with it.'”

So far, NURS 5367: Evidence-Based Practice is Shirley’s favorite course in the program curriculum. And, there is one particular aspect of online learning that she enjoys the most.

“I like not having to get dressed for school,” she said.

Going Strong

Even though Shirley’s friends and family were surprised she enrolled in college at an age when she is receiving social security benefits, they are supportive and helpful.

“They are happy for me,” she said. “I had to go crying to my nephew to pass the first course. He is a philosophy teacher who is working on his doctorate. He helped me with my first paper. A lot of my family members have college degrees, but nobody else did it online.”

In addition to complementing Shirley’s wealth of nursing experience, the online MSN in Nursing Education program provides plenty of interaction with classmates and faculty members.

“I’ve enjoyed connecting and would like to meet some of the people in my courses,” she said. “You get to know people from course to course that you respond to online. I would like to do more of that as I continue in the program.”

Shirley hopes to set an example for other nurses who are nearing the end of their careers and considering a return to higher education. She offers some advice for those entering an online program to help ease the process:

“I recommend coaching and practice for what you need to do to take an online course,” she said. “Learn how to use Microsoft Word. Prepare. I’m still not an expert on it, but I’m not a neophyte about computers. In modern nursing, we use computers. Be more familiar with online learning if you are not.”

Shirley, who enjoys gardening and volunteering her dog as a therapy animal, is thinking of making the trip north to Arlington to walk in the commencement ceremony 45 years after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree. She hopes to continue teaching the next generation of nurses along the way when that day arrives.

“I need to go back to work,” Shirley said. “I’m ready to teach. I’d like to maybe work part time in a simulation lab.”

She’s like the Air Force — nothing can stop her.

Learn more about the UTA online MSN in Nursing Education program.

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