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Growing by degrees

Athara Toussaint (center), searches for her grades online while having breakfast with her sons Dallas (left, age 17) and Julian (14).
Athara Toussaint (center), searches for her grades online while having breakfast with her sons Dallas (left, age 17) and Julian (14).

Area nurses return to school to advance their careers

Continuing education is critical in the rapidly changing world of nurses – whether their goal is keeping up or getting ahead.

All licensed practical nurses and registered nurses in Georgia must meet some continuing education requirements as a condition of license renewal.

But many nurses also are juggling shift work and class work so that they can pursue advanced degrees through a public, private, or online nursing program.

“It was time to keep on growing and keep on learning,” said Jeff Batcher, manager of cardiac telemetry at WellStar Healthcare System in Douglasville of his decision to pursue a Master of Science in Nursing degree at Kennesaw State University’s nursing school.

Nearly a decade ago, the Institute for Medicine issued a report declaring the need for more highly trained nurses to deal with the complexities of healthcare reform and the growing number of older Americans saddled with multiple chronic conditions.

The landmark report recommended that 80 percent of nurses have a bachelor’s degree by 2020 and that the number of nurses pursuing doctorates double. (At the time the report was issued, only about 45 percent of nurses were said to have Bachelor of Science degrees.)

Nursing schools responded, rapidly creating or expanding baccalaureate and post-graduate nursing programs, with online programs experiencing a strong surge.

Linda Streit, dean of Mercer University’s Georgia Baptist College of Nursing, said surveys over the past several years show that more than 50 percent of the university’s new graduates expect to pursue an advanced degree in the future, and some within a year or two.

The state’s licensing reports show growth in all categories of nurses. For instance, the number of licensed nurse practitioners in Georgia has increased by more than 1,000 a year, going from 7,230 in 2015 to 9,453 in 2017.

These jobs require advanced degrees, either an MSN (Master of Science in Nursing) or DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice.)

Here’s a glimpse at three nursing veterans, including Batcher, who are pursuing advanced degrees at Kennesaw State University’s WellStar School of Nursing.

Subhead: Without Ph.D., she felt limited

At nearly 60 years old, Christie Emerson isn’t the typical Ph.D. candidate.

She began her nursing career in the 1980s and spent eight years at the bedside before putting her career on hold to raise her three children.

About 10 years later, she was ready to return to nursing, easing back in with part-time work.

Around 1997, she decided to enroll at Kennesaw University’s nursing school to pursue her master’s degree and a career as a nurse practitioner, largely because of the potential for more family-friendly work hours.

With a busy husband and one child in high school, one in middle school and one in elementary school, she “didn’t see shift work fitting into my family.” After she received her master’s degree, Emerson took a part-time job as a nurse practitioner and quickly realized she didn’t like the role that much.

Lucky for her, KSU came along with an offer for her to teach nursing.

“I started doing clinicals at the hospital,” Emerson said. “It was absolutely my calling.”

For the next eight years, she taught nursing part-time.

In 2006, with her children older, Emerson accepted a fulltime teaching job at Kennesaw.

A few years into the job, she became aware that, in nursing education, without a doctorate, “you are just not qualified to do certain things, like conducting research and writing grants.”

Initially, that didn’t bother her.

“I was so fulfilled just teaching and learning to be a good teacher,” Emerson said.

Her desire to have a doctorate and the capability to do research intensified, however, after she took a group of students to study nursing in Oman, a country on the southeastern coast of the Arabia Peninsula in western Asia.

She knew though, that to obtain her doctorate, she wasn’t willing to go into debt or juggle full-time jobs as both student and teacher.

Doors opened for her that eliminated those obstacles.

The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia was so desperate for nursing faculty that it covered half the costs of her KSU salary so that she could work part-time and receive full-time pay. The USG’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) also is covering her tuition and fees.

Emerson enrolled in KSU’s doctorate program in nursing in 2015 and hopes to graduate in December.

She’ll be 60 when she graduates but has no plans for slowing down. She expects to work at least another 10 years.

She’s writing her dissertation on nursing on the Arabian Peninsula and would like to continue research on the nursing workforce from a global perspective.

“I would love to stay at Kennesaw when I graduate and continue my love of teaching nursing but also contribute to nursing through nursing research,” Emerson said.

Jeff and Cindy Batcher with daughters Danielle, Lauren and Bridget. Photo courtesy Batcher family.
Jeff and Cindy Batcher with daughters Danielle, Lauren and Bridget. Photo courtesy Batcher family.

Subhead: Batcher wanted "more options to grow within the field"

Jeff Batcher enrolled in Kennesaw’s Master of Science in Nursing program in 2015 and hopes to graduate in 2019.

“I wanted some more options to grow within the field,” he said. “I want to be a director someday.”

Batcher received his undergraduate degree from Kennesaw in 2004 and immediately went to work with his current employer, WellStar Healthcare System.

He held several positions with WellStar, including charge nurse and nurse manager, before settling into his job as manager of cardiac telemetry at the Douglasville hospital.

Batcher said he is already seeing payoffs from his work in the master’s degree program.

“In the short-term, it is allowing me greater knowledge of how to do my current job even better,” he said. “In the long-term, I think it will help me go higher in nurse administration and have a broader impact on policies in the hospital and the way we do nursing.”

With 20 years left to work, Batcher hasn’t ruled out the possibility of one day pursuing his Ph.D.

“I tend to get bored,” he said.

Batcher originally planned to have a career in physical education or sports.

But, he said, his grandfather’s cancer opened his eyes to tailoring his interest in the human body to medicine.


Nurse Athara Toussaint says she wouldn’t be working on her master’s degree were it not for sons Dallas, 17, and Julian, 14.

She knew entering the program might mean missing ballgames and other special events in her boys’ lives and so her decision to pursue her master’s hinged on their approval.

“They gave me the thumbs up and have been very understanding and super supportive,” Toussaint said. “In fact, they helped to teach – reteach me – algebra so I could pass my GRE exam.”

It has been a taxing endeavor. Some days, she’s up at 4 a.m. to do homework. Then, it’s off to clinicals, followed by a 12-hour shift as a full-time critical care nurse at Kennestone Hospital. But it’s been well worth it to Toussaint on many levels.

“It was really important for me to set the bar for my kids. I always tell them: ‘Match me or do better,” she said. “It was very important to me for them to see me put the work in to get up early, go to bed late, be sleep deprived, stressed and frustrated while achieving this goal.”

Toussaint, who has been in nursing for eight years, wants to parlay her master’s degree into a career as a family nurse practitioner, and eventually, combine it with her passion for foreign missionary work.

“This degree will change my role from a caretaker to a provider of care,” she said.

Toussaint graduates in December.