Fayetteville woman earns nursing degree 20 years after start

Sharese Windley earned a BSN in April from Herzing University twenty years after first attending nursing school. She begins a residency this month at Emory.

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Sharese Windley earned a BSN in April from Herzing University twenty years after first attending nursing school. She begins a residency this month at Emory.

Sharese Windley first began her path to becoming a nurse in 1998. The former nurse’s aide was 22 and a mother of two, working and attending school part-time. She had no idea it would take 20 years to fulfill her dream.

In April, Windley, 42 of Fayetteville, graduated from Herzing University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing. This month, she begins her residency at Emory University Midtown Hospital.

“That was the cherry on top of everything I had done at that point,” said Windley who graduated at the top of her class. “You go through so much to have it end on such a high note.”

Windley was born in the Bronx, New York and was raised in foster care. She was first inspired to become a nurse by her foster mother who suffered with diabetes. “Growing up around someone with a chronic illness, I was fascinated by anything related to health” said Windley. That would become an advantage when Windley herself feel ill.

In 2001, Windley was a married mother of three now attending school full-time until she began to experience strange symptoms -- her weight had dropped to 97 pounds and she was unable to eat. On a particularly bad day, she went to the hospital and was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic disease that causes ulcers in the digestive tract.

Windley ended up staying in the hospital for three weeks. She delayed returning to school and took a job at a care facility. But in just a few months, she fell ill again and was back in the hospital with the same routine all over again.

“It was a scary time for my family. It was supposed to be a great time in my life but instead I was dealing with this,” Windley said. Fortunately she had friends and family to help with her recovery, but when her condition improved, she and her husband decided she would stay home to raise their family and attend school.

When she had only three semesters left to complete nursing school, she and her family moved to Acworth where her husband had a better career opportunity. So she threw herself into raising her young children and put her education on hold.

Years later, in 2011, she had another flare up but this time it was more serious than it had ever been. Unable to manage things at home, Windley had a friend come to stay with her while her husband went to work.

Her first trip to the hospital included the usual treatment -- doses of steroids to battle the inflammation. But instead of feeling better, she felt worse. Her vision got blurry and even water made her sick. After sleeping for a bit, she he woke up with a bad feeling and told her friend she needed to return to the hospital.

Windley was on the verge of a diabetic coma.

In and out of consciousness in intensive care, she began reflecting on her life. “You start thinking about how you haven’t done anything that you said you were going to do with your life,” Windley said. “My life has been hard and I have always been a pull yourself up by your bootstraps type of person. In that moment, I just felt like this life has to change.”

Two weeks later when she was released from the hospital she began researching nursing programs. She was more determined than ever to become a nurse. Having spent so much time in hospitals, Windley knew nurses could change lives and she wanted to be among them.

“I have been the patient before. It gives me a lot more compassion and understanding,” she said.  She had friends who had become nurses and had 15-year careers. “I was so tired of not doing what I want to do,” she said.

But things were different now. Her first time around, she had a GPA of 4.0 and was ranked second to get into nursing school in New York. Now she had been out of school for years and many of her credits would not transfer. Windley would have to start from the beginning. In her research, she discovered Herzing University and it seemed like a good fit.

>> Related: Herzing University plans to move from Lenox Square to downtown Atlanta

She spent two weeks cramming for the entrance exam for nursing school and was able to attend that spring with financial aid. Windley was an A student, but nursing classes were tough. Her confidence was shaken when she failed a pharmacology course.

During a summer off, she crammed for the class and switched to night courses so she could study while her children were at school. From that moment, she never scored anything less than an A -- including in pharmacology. She also served as class president and was a mentor to fellow nursing students. A month before graduation, Windley had landed a residency at Emory.

“Getting ill and being sick, that is the thing that kept me connected to nursing in some way. I would go in the hospital and see these amazing nurses,” said Windley whose illness has been in remission for two years. “In nursing school you doubt yourself a lot in what you know and if you are going to be a good nurse. I tried to make sure I got information in my brain but I wanted to make sure I was a good nurse and that has to do with you being a loving person and a caring person.”

Windley hopes to continue her advanced education and move up the ranks of her field. Her journey woke up something in her and she hopes it has also set an example for her children. “It is showing them that nothing has to stop you from what you want to achieve,” Windley said. “You can have the bleakest outlook and still make it though.”