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Grads Praise Values-Based Nursing Master’s Program

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One proud graduate came from Oregon. Another from Lancaster, Pa. They were two of nine who gathered one day in the fall of 2012 to celebrate completing the first online master’s degree program offered at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) – a master’s of science in nursing program.

Jeff Eavey remained on his job as a nurse-manager at the University of Virginia while completing his MSN in leadership and management by taking the quickest possible path of 24 months. “I chose EMU because of its faith-based approach,” he said, noting that the institution where he works offers a number of routes for nurses to earn master’s degrees.

“I like EMU’s servant-leadership perspective, the way it applies Micah 6:8 [to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God].”

EMU’s MSN program offers two concentrations: (1) leadership and management and (2) leadership and school nursing. Launched in 2010, this program combines personal relationships among the students and professors, with an underlying philosophy that nursing should be based on a “sacred covenant.”

“Our covenant encompasses agape love, grace, justice, presence, reconciliation, empowerment, partnership, service and advocacy,” said Arlene Wiens, the now-retired chair of EMU’s nursing department, who nurtured this MSN from concept to launch.

Servant Leadership with Love

“I had worked in nursing leadership for a number of years before coming to EMU in 1996,” she added. “And I gradually came to realize that EMU’s mission to develop ‘servant leadership,’ imbued with grace and agape love, is quite different from most nursing programs and is really needed.”

Wiens and her departmental colleagues found ways for this Internet-facilitated form of graduate study to be intimate, mutually supportive, and relevant to each person’s work situation, said several members of the first MSN class.

MSN graduate Lois Olney, who spent nine years as director of nursing in two long-term care facilities in southeastern Pennsylvania before embarking on full-time graduate studies, checked into several widely advertised online master’s degree programs for nurses, backed by nationally recognized names, before settling upon EMU’s. “I liked EMU’s global perspective, and I thought it was respected [in her home region]. It was also more cost-effective than the others.”

Olney’s sister chose one of the big-name online institutions for her graduate degree, and they got to compare their experiences. “My sister missed the human-touch component that I got at EMU. She did not feel her professors cared about her. EMU started us off with an ethics course; hers came at the end. This speaks volumes to me.

Wholistic Perspective

“I have a more wholistic perspective. I grew as a person as well as a professional. Arlene, Ann, Erica, Melody, Don, Gloria, Dave [referring by first name to some of her professors] – all were inspiring to me. They had a high level of maturity, of emotional intelligence. They cared, seeing me through some rough times.

“Every single class I took helped me. It made me wonder, ‘How did I do it [lead others] before?’ The readings and books were so good, I haven’t let go of any of them yet.” Unique aspects of EMU’s approach, said Olney, was a focus on “who you are and self-awareness,” along with lessons in how to transform workplace conflict and to foster the growth of each team member.

“To bring the dignity of each of our patients back and to deliver better care, we need to first take care of each other as humans, nurses and healthcare workers,” said Olney, who began the program at age 46. “EMU gave me the tools and inspiration I needed to be that kind of leader.”

Before settling on EMU, Roxanne Harris also weighed other master’s degree programs, focusing on several that were state-supported, namely UVa’s, Old Dominion University’s and James Madison University’s. As a Virginia resident, the state-supported programs would have cost her about 25 percent less, but she felt “EMU’s values were very, very important to me.”

Nursing as Ministry

“As soon as I met [EMU nursing professor] Ann Hershberger, I felt peace. If this is where God wanted his money to go, that’s where it would go. Nursing is my ministry. I could speak and write openly of this at EMU.” Harris is the maternal child health program educator at Augusta Health, serving a semi-rural area between Harrisonburg and Charlottesville.

The graduate who studied from the farthest distance was Cheeri Barnhart of Rickreall, Ore., who earned her bachelor’s degree from EMU in 1977 and whose two daughters, Eliza and Ellie, graduated from EMU in 2009 and 2011, respectively. When professor Gloria Rhodes invited the class to have a get-together on campus in the spring of 2011, Barnhart flew in to join the people she had come to regard as friends from months of online discussions.

Though the program is set up as a two-year track, EMU gives students the option of pursuing the degree as a part-time student for 48 months, depending on individual needs. Prospective students, who are encouraged to submit their applications online at emu.edu/msn/apply, must have a minimum of one year of full time work as an RN, a license to practice, a bachelor’s degree in nursing or another major from an accredited university, and a GPA of 3.0.

Contributing to Home Institutions

The MSN semester begins with a one-day orientation on campus, during which MSN students meet their professors and fellow students, become familiar with the online system, and begin their first class. From there, the MSN students can complete their work entirely via the Internet with some synchronous web-based class meetings. Some courses include practicum work hours. Most students complete the practicum as projects in their work settings, thus contributing to their home institutions. Nurses in the school track, for example, would focus on high school, elementary school, or children with special needs.

During a graduation celebration held Oct. 7, 2012, the graduates spoke briefly on their individual capstone projects. MSN co-directors Hershberger and Don Tyson gave the welcome and opening prayer, followed by a hymn and reflection by Wiens. Department chair Melody Cash, along with faculty members Priscilla Simmons and Erica Lewis, presented the students’ diplomas.

Graduation concluded with a commissioning by graduate dean David Glanzer and a benediction from Loren Swartzendruber, president of EMU. “Graduation was wonderful,” said Cynthia Hudson, clinical manager of cardiac rehab at Lancaster General Health in Pennsylvania. “My family was so impressed with the dean and president being there to acknowledge us. It was also great to see my peers in the cohort.”

Student numbers in MSN have risen sharply over the program’s two-year existence, with 33 students now enrolled, including one studying from Guatemala.

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