How to Survive and Thrive in Uncertain Economic Times
Second-Career Nursing Students Stare Down the Economy While Gaining Satisfaction in Their New Careers

Katrina Millard, left, circa 1990, as a park ranger

John Campbell as a river guide

Katrina Millard, circa 1998, as a graphic designer

For Katrina Millard, 43, the "Aha" moment came while she was driving home from the pharmacy, talking with her husband about the state of health care. "I think I'll become a nurse," Millard recalls saying.

In reality, the decision had been long in coming. Ms. Millard, formerly a graphic designer, had been seeking a greater sense of career and financial stability since 9/11. The collapse of the twin towers affected her both directly - she and her family could not return to their soot- and glass-strewn apartment for six weeks - and indirectly, as her design business hit a slump. "I lost a sense of security, like so many others," she says. Even during their most successful years as designers, Millard and her husband agonized over the uncertainties of the economy and high cost of health insurance for a family of four. She also missed the human contact and connection to science that she had found in her first job out of college, as a park ranger in California and Utah. When a teenage niece was hospitalized with an osteosarcoma - a malignant bone tumor - Millard found herself closely following her niece's treatment and was surprised by how motivated she was to learn all about the condition. After watching friends earn advanced degrees over 20 years, Millard finally felt that she had found a career that motivated her.

Now, as a 15-month accelerated bachelor's degree student and Hillman Scholar at the NYU College of Nursing, Millard is the envy of some of her friends. "The first thing people say is, ‘You'll always have a job,'" she says. Accelerated bachelor's students carry a heavy, full-time workload, but Millard - who does her homework with her middle-school children, Pedro and Hazel - says that it's great to be back in school.

The College of Nursing's 15-month accelerated degree program was tailor-made for students like Millard and many of her classmates, who turned to nursing after careers that may have been successful but were not as secure or satisfying. Nursing has been a notable standout as a safe job in a year when so many people have become unemployed. Nurse practitioner ranked fourth on Money's list of the Top 50 Best Jobs in America, published in November 2009, and The New York Times recently noted that healthcare employment increased during the recession, with nurses continuing to be hired.

Not surprisingly, applications to the College of Nursing's 15-month accelerated degree program have nearly tripled in four years, according to Amy Knowles, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Admissions. Applications to all the College's combined degree programs doubled in the past four years, from 730 in fall 2005 to 1,423 in fall 2009. Enrollment has also doubled, to 297 this past fall, in keeping with the College's target for planned growth. Knowles notes that three open houses held in fall 2009 were packed, and her office is fielding a strong increase in inquiries from prospective students.

"The groundswell of interest in the College of Nursing clearly reflects the view of nursing as a career that can ride out fluctuations in the economy," says Knowles. She notes that recent positive depictions of nursing on television have also added to nursing's appeal.

The growth of the 15-month degree program has been aided by support from the Alex Hillman Family Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, both of which established scholarships to help ease the nursing shortage. Supporting 10 and 15 students a year, respectively, these programs have gone a long way toward enabling the College to expand to meet the need.

A Robert Wood Johnson Scholarship - targeted toward underrepresented groups in the nursing profession - is helping John Campbell, 28, to embark on a career in nursing just five years out of architecture school. After trying his hand at architecture, Campbell quickly realized that he was not cut out for a desk job and returned to a prior career, as a whitewater rafting guide on the White Salmon River in Washington's Columbia River Gorge.

To progress as a river guide, Campbell had taken first aid, CPR, swiftwater rescue, and wilderness emergency medical technician courses. It isn't hard for him to name the moment when he realized that he could be well suited for a career in health care. A raft had flipped over in a waterfall, and people, paddles, and other equipment were scattered all over the river. While no significant injuries occurred, it was no small effort to make sure everyone was safe and to respond to their anxiety. That day, Campbell knew he had found his calling.

While researching the nursing field, Campbell worked on an ambulance as an EMT, an experience that cemented his decision. Moreover, he strongly identified with nursing's emphasis on treating each patient as a whole person, rather than a collection of symptoms, because it directly paralleled his training in architecture, which stresses an understanding of the overall context in every building project. Campbell did not anticipate the recession when applying to nursing school; however, he feels very fortunate to be studying to be a nurse today. In the past year, he has seen friends laid off, and architecture jobs have become very hard to come by.

"Architecture is a profession that is very susceptible to the ups and downs of the construction industry," Campbell says. "The fact that health care will always be in demand is very attractive to me."

Like Campbell, Neville Lewis, '09, at the age of 41 has seen his former profession deeply scarred by the recession and friends trapped by very limited job choices. He spent more than a decade in the workforce before enrolling at the NYU College of Nursing.

For the most part, Lewis enjoyed his work in the finance industry as a stock-transfer analyst and bonds service representative; yet, he nurtured the goal of going to law school. As Lewis came closer to making a change, he was increasingly concerned that a legal career would mean more of the things he liked least about finance: the rigid schedule, the cubicle culture, and less time with his six-year-old son, Mekhi.

Lewis's "Aha" moment came during a long weekend in South Florida for the annual West Indian Carnival with his nephew and a friend who is a registered nurse. The friend teased that, while Lewis was burning up vacation days, he simply had days off, as a result of a more flexible schedule.

"It hit me that I hate the 9 to 5," says Lewis, "and I love interacting with people. So, the question was, how could I have an impact on people and make a difference?" Lewis had to overcome a final hurdle to nursing: an aversion to seeing blood. But his wife, also an RN, and his friend thought psychiatric nursing might be the way to go.

Lewis quickly realized that health care is about much more than drawing blood. After his second semester at the College of Nursing, his father, who lived in Antigua, became ill. His right leg was amputated, and he died of a stroke a month later. By communicating with the attending physician and nursing staff, Lewis saw firsthand the advantage to a patient of having a healthcare advocate who can ask the right questions. Still, he has harbored the fear that his father might not have received the most aggressive care because of his advanced age.

"Since then, I've become even more passionate about helping people who are in critical need," he says. "Thankfully, here in the United States, there is much more of an effort made to give the elderly the care they need."

While progressing through his nursing rotations, Lewis has had a number of transformative experiences as a caregiver, establishing bonds with patients who were having extreme difficulty communicating, eating, or accepting care. Those intensely personal interactions have left no doubt that Lewis made the right choice.

"Unlike sitting at a computer and getting a bond settled or having an angry client on the phone, I feel like I'm having a direct impact on people's lives," he says.

Glad to have left finance before the meltdown, Lewis is studying for nursing licensure, job hunting, and thinking about continuing on to his master's degree. Most important, he says, he has realized that his aversion to seeing blood extended only to his own!

For John Campbell, becoming a nurse has yielded numerous benefits, beginning with the close friends he has made in the 15-month program. "I feel like I'm part of a new movement, as a guy, which is refreshing," he says. "I feel a responsibility to do my best and set a good example, making sure I'm representing men in nursing." Along with several fellow students, Campbell is helping to start a new student organization dedicated to men entering nursing.

The Oklahoma native, who had never set foot in New York City before enrolling at NYU, says that the skills he learned on the river - like being very self- sufficient - are useful in the urban environment, which can be equally overwhelming. Still, he looks forward to taking full advantage of the Hudson Valley wilderness in his time away from school.

For Millard, understanding the philosophy and theory of nursing has been more rewarding than she anticipated. "It has been so pleasant to exercise my intellectual capacity, especially after having kids. I'm a much better student than I was 20 years ago," she says. Millard, who plans to complete her master's degree and nurse practitioner certification, has found that being able to help a patient in a vulnerable situation is a very powerful thing. Still, after having always had to negotiate her pay with each client, having a steady salary will be powerful, too.