Going the Distance with Nursing@Georgetown

For students in the School of Nursing & Health Studies online master’s in nursing program, the country is their classroom.

How do we provide healthcare to women in a way that empowers them to thrive after trauma?

That’s the question driving the work of Lillian Medhus, RN, a San Franciscobased nurse who is currently a student in the online program at Georgetown’s School of Nursing & Health Studies (NHS).

Working with a group called Nurture Project International (NPI), she travelled to Greece over winter break to help women and families in refugee camps. On her trip, she met one young Syrian woman who had been separated from her husband and was in the final stages of her pregnancy.

“In the midst of all this chaos,” recalls Medhus, “I was able to empower her to care for herself, by teaching her simple ways to reduce the discomfort of pregnancy. We listened to her baby’s heartbeat and gave her a few minutes to breathe. That’s the beauty of midwifery to me and why I’m pursuing this career: to bring normalcy, health, and wholeness to women in crisis.”

At home in San Francisco, Medhus worked as a domestic violence counselor at a nonprofit called the Afghan Coalition.

“Women are the gateway to the family and the community,” adds Medhus. “If we help them care for themselves, we will see communities transformed.”

Five years of innovation

In 2011, the School of Nursing & Health Studies set out to improve health in more communities by expanding dramatically the educational reach of its longtime graduate nursing program. Online learning provided the solution. In collaboration with an educational technology company called 2U Inc., Georgetown’s Master of Science (MS) in Nursing program prepares nurses for increased responsibility, without taking them out of the communities they serve.

Nursing@Georgetown, which celebrated its fifth anniversary last year, was Georgetown University’s first foray into an online degree-granting program. Today, more than 1,000 graduates across all specialties have completed the program, and many work in federally designated underserved areas.

Reaching 48 states plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the program currently supports more than 650 students, offering a choice of four tracks: Family Nurse Practitioner; Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP); Nurse-Midwifery/WHNP; and Adult Gerontology-Acute Care Nurse Practitioner.

“In developing this program, our faculty members wanted to bring Georgetown’s excellent, values-based curriculum to students in more communities around the country,” explains Patricia Cloonan, PhD, RN, dean of the School of Nursing & Health Studies. “Our goal has been to educate advanced nursing leaders for the health care workforce and to promote good health for all, with a particular focus on individuals in rural and underserved areas. We are proud that many of our graduates have gone on to use their degrees to work in medically underserved areas.”

Learning from professors, peers

Weekly live classes, self-paced coursework, and personalized clinical experiences are the hallmarks of Nursing@ Georgetown.

To facilitate lively discussions and close-knit working groups, the studentteacher ratio in classes is an impressive 12:1 and office hours are available through the same online platform that classes use.

Students receive academic, professional, social, and personal guidance from a team of counselors that field questions related to scholarship opportunities, technical support, and even work-life balance.

Experiential learning takes the form of a clinical placement based on specialty and location. Working under the guidance of a preceptor, students gain handson experience with patients.

Depending on their chosen program of study, students may also attend one or more on-campus intensives at Georgetown University or an NHS affiliate location in order to collaborate with peers and participate in dynamic simulations. At innovative facilities like Georgetown’s O’Neill Family Foundation Clinical Simulation Center, high-fidelity simulators can realistically replicate physiological conditions and symptoms as well as pharmacological responses.

“The learning environment, both online and on campus, for our distance students is robust. Through face-toface virtual class sessions, our students really get to know one another and their professors well—often before they meet in person,” shares Cloonan. “When they finally attend the first on-campus intensive, it is like a reunion of sorts.”

The dean explains that because the students come from around the country and are already nurses, they have a unique opportunity to learn from one another about health care delivery in different parts of the United States. “We like to say the country is their classroom,” she adds.

Forging bonds, sharing values
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“For me the best part about teaching online is the ability to offer a Georgetown University education to students across the country,” shares Professor Carol Taylor, PhD, RN. “It is not unusual in a class of 11 students to have someone from Washington State, Northern Virginia, Hawaii, California, and Illinois. Some work in academic health centers but others work in small rural hospitals or clinics. I am always humbled by the wealth of their experience and eagerness to make health care work for everyone in need.”

Taylor has been involved in designing Nursing@Georgetown’s ethics curriculum, including a module on vulnerability in which students reflect on what puts patients, families, and communities at risk. In this module students have had candid conversations about working in an emergency room when patients are aggressively demanding inappropriate prescriptions, or dealing with patients who are sexual predators.

“Students also share experiences where they have observed people not getting equitable treatment and then discuss the many conscious and unconscious variables that feed discrimination and bias. We want Georgetown to graduate leaders whose work will respect everyone’s inherent dignity,” adds Taylor.

Throughout the program and after graduation, students get the opportunity to attend networking events with faculty, staff, alumni, and fellow students.

“I began working with my mentor in the first semester of the program,” shares Medhus. “She really helped me to feel connected to Georgetown, as I had not yet met classmates. If I ever needed anything, I could always text her, even during my clinical.”

The strong network encourages Nursing@Georgetown graduates to make a difference in their communities, as women and men for others, with innovative services that spread Georgetown values far and wide.

“Georgetown’s online program is a perfect fit for me,” adds Medhus. “I love being able to remain in the community I’m passionate about serving while gaining skills to serve even better in the future.”

In 2016, Nursing@Georgetown marked five years in online education. Of note:

  • The first cohort of 17 students began on March 21, 2011.
  • Janelle Shank, MS (G’12), from Arizona, was the first student to enroll in the online program.
  • In September 2012, six full-time students became the first-ever graduates of an online degree-granting program at Georgetown University.
  • There have been more than 1,000 graduates across specialties since the program began.
  • More than 650 students are currently enrolled in the program.
  • The program now operates in 48 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Students in the Nurse-Midwifery Program have delivered more than 4,800 babies.
  • Many online graduates work in federally designated medically underserved areas.
  • Ninety-seven percent of students have a first-time pass rate on their certification examinations.

By Camille Scarborough