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Changing course: a second degree and second career 

Debbie Robles, recipient of the Hospice of Michigan Second Degree-Second Career Nursing Scholarship, prepares for her nurse licensure exam and a new career in hospice and palliative care.

Debbie Robles, recipient of the Hospice of Michigan Second Degree-Second Career Nursing Scholarship, prepares for her nurse licensure exam and a new career in hospice and palliative care.

Debbie Robles was drawn to the nursing profession at a young age. She recalls dressing as a nurse for career day in elementary school, and also caring for her sick grandmother and great-aunt as a young adult. But as an 18-year-old college student, a nursing degree just wasn’t something she could pursue.

“I paid my way through college and had to work several jobs to pay the bills,” Robles explains. “The nursing program required a lot of time, homework and use of a car that I didn’t have. Instead I chose to pursue a math degree. Math always came easy to me, and I knew it wouldn’t be as time intensive, allowing me to work more.”

Robles graduated from Franciscan University with a bachelor’s degree in math along with a teaching endorsement. She went on to lead a successful career teaching middle school and high school and even working as an adjunct math professor at Grand Valley State University.

Eventually, Robles decided to put her teaching career on hold while she and her husband started a family. Five children and 11 years later, Robles was ready to go back to work and found herself back in the classroom where she intended to take a couple biology classes to keep up her teaching certificate and to expand the subjects she could teach. That’s when the stars began to align for her and a career in hospice and palliative care began taking shape.

“As I started to talk with other students in my class, I learned that GVSU offered an accelerated second-degree nursing program, and the two classes I was taking were both prerequisites for the degree,” Robles says. “I went home that night and told my husband ‘This is what I want to do.’”

GVSU’s second-degree nursing program is offered through its Kirkhof College of Nursing and targeted toward individuals who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher from an accredited college or university and wish to pursue a bachelor of science in nursing. Students are admitted to the full-time, 15-month program once per year, applying in January for a May start.

By the end of her first semester back in college, Robles had made her decision to pursue the nursing degree when she learned her 69-year-old father was diagnosed with late-stage sarcoma. With no treatment options available, her father died within weeks of diagnosis.

“As I reflected on this experience with my dad, it struck me that in the health courses I’d been taking, the focus was on treatment and saving lives. No one talked about death and what to do when treatment wasn’t available,” Robles recalls. “Death is inevitable, but it’s something nobody wants to talk about.”

Shortly after her father died, Robles learned that Hospice of Michigan offered a Second Degree-Second Career Nursing Scholarship through GVSU. Responding to a shortage of nursing students interested in end-of-life care, HOM established the scholarship in 2009 to provide the funds and the opportunity for students like Robles to change their career path.

“I was amazed when I found out about the scholarship program,” Robles said. “Not only did I stumble across the second-degree nursing program, but then I found out there is a scholarship available for the exact type of medicine I had recently decided I wanted to go into. I knew then that hospice and palliative care is what I was meant to do.”

With funding provided by HOM, the scholarship, which was created to nurture future registered nurses in the field of hospice and palliative care, awards recipients full tuition, a stipend and a nursing residency with HOM that provides first-hand experience. After the student graduates and passes the licensure exam, he or she will enter into a two-year agreement to work as a full-time nurse for HOM.

“Since many students study nursing right after high school, the idea of a career in palliative care doesn’t interest them,” said Dr. Michael Paletta, executive director of the Hospice of Michigan Institute. “Offering the Second Degree-Second Career scholarship to those seeking nursing as a career change later in life allows HOM to reach students who may be more interested and comfortable with a career in hospice and palliative care. Scholarship recipients will receive top-notch training both in the classroom and in the field. To date, we have given three scholarships and have nursing students practicing around the state.”

Robles applied and was delighted to be selected as the 2013 scholarship recipient. She graduated from GVSU’s nursing program this summer and is currently studying for her licensure exam.

“The first-hand experience I’ve had working with HOM through my education has reassured me that this was the profession I was meant to be in,” Robles says. “I’m very excited to begin my new career and couldn’t be happier that it’s with Hospice of Michigan.”

For more information about Hospice of Michigan and its Second Degree-Second Career Nursing Scholarship visit www.hom.org.

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