For years, Grace Hiyakumoto knew she wanted to be a nurse, but she was never able to make time to earn a nursing degree.
“Nursing had always been a dream career for me,” Hiyakumoto said. “I would look at programs. It never felt like the right time to do it. Even back in high school I’d see my friends go into nursing and I’d be so jealous. It never felt like something I could do.”
Hiyakumoto’s desire to work in a helping field led her to find a job as a personal care assistant for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. She got the job straight out of college, was promoted to a managerial position, and worked there for 14 years. Though she was successful in her field, the desire to be a nurse kept nagging at her.
“I was nursing-adjacent,” Hiyakumoto said with a laugh. “It was a career for sure. I liked it, but eventually you burn out when something is not your calling.”
In October 2019, when Hiyakumoto was in her early 30s, she decided to take the plunge and enroll in a new 15-month accelerated post-baccalaureate nursing program offered by Bethel University in St. Paul. The time was finally right, she said: “I thought, ‘If I want a new career by 40, let’s get on this.’ I started thinking about what I really wanted to do in my life.”
In response to a nationwide nursing shortage, intensive, abbreviated post-baccalaureate nursing programs are popping up around the country. In Minnesota alone, Bethel, the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Concordia College in Moorhead, the University of Northwestern in St. Paul and the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing all offer accelerated programs designed for college graduates interested in switching to a nursing career.
The global pandemic has intensified the desire for such programs, said Kristi Gustafson, program director for Bethel’s post- baccalaureate nursing program. She and her colleagues had been hearing from people like Hiyakumoto, adults with college degrees and successful careers who were driven by a desire to become a nurse but who found that regular undergraduate nursing programs weren’t a good fit.
“The traditional program is geared to a traditional student in their 20s who’s living on campus,” said Gustafson. “That doesn’t work well for a person who is not in their early 20s with a regular life.”
Since Bethel officially launched its program in January 2020, Gustafson said students from a wide range of educational and career backgrounds have been signing up, and the number of participants has continued to grow, from 18 the first year, to 21 in 2021 to 30 in 2022.
“We see people with degrees in creative arts, fashion design, sciences, psychology, communications and marketing — the whole gamut of past educational experiences,” she said. “The one thing they have in common is their desire to make a difference for others through a nursing career.”
The success of programs like Bethel’s is inspiring other schools with nursing programs to consider launching their own post-baccalaureate options, Gustafson added. “More of these programs are coming in the next five years in Minnesota and the Midwest and beyond.”
When she learned that Bethel was launching an accelerated post-baccalaureate nursing program, Hiyakumoto was all in. She registered, and then quickly signed up for a set of required prerequisite science courses through several local community colleges.
Then the world changed.
“Three months later, COVID hit and everything went online,” Hiyakumoto recalled. “It was a challenging experience, but the pandemic and the chaos it created only strengthened my resolve to go to nursing school. I could see how great the need was. People were suffering. I was like, ‘Sign me up.’”
Though the stresses of working in health care during a global pandemic has caused many nurses to leave the profession, Hiyakumoto said the Great Resignation hasn’t caused her to rethink her decision. She is on track to graduate from Bethel in August with a degree in nursing. After a monthlong break, she’ll take her licensing exam through the state Board of Nursing in September and hopes to start a job that same month.
“It is weird to be running into a profession that so many others are running out of,” Hiyakumoto said. “But I can’t wait to start. It’s like my dream is finally coming true.”
A rewarding group to work with
Nearly everyone in the world has interacted with a nurse at some point in their life, and many of the students who have signed up for Bethel’s post-baccalaureate nursing program talk about having had a difficult health experience — with themselves or a family member — and how nurse made a significant impact for them, said Gustafson. “They want to be able to offer that same impact for others.”
Nursing also appeals to applicants who say they are discouraged by the state of the world and want to do their part to improve people’s lives. “Some applicants are recognizing that the pandemic has really changed the world and that nurses are in high demand,” Gustafson said. “They tell us they want to help fill that need. They feel a calling to step in at this time.”
Still others, like Hiyakumoto, have already worked in health care but in management or business roles but “are drawn to that interpersonal connection that they can have with patients,” Gustafson said.
Hiyakumoto said that she has always been filled with a desire to support others. “I love the idea of being the person who was there for someone in their most vulnerable time,” she said. “That’s what really drives me about nursing — to know that there are people who are going to go through hard things and I get the privilege to walk with them.”
She’d like to be able to help her patients through difficult times, like a cancer treatment or recovery from a serious surgery.
“I want to have the opportunity to work with people through these hard moments. It feels like it will be such an honor and a privilege,” Hiyakumoto said.
People who have already finished a college degree and have had other careers bring great perspective and commitment to earning a nursing degree, Gustafson said. “It’s a really rewarding group of students to work with. They are highly engaged. They own their education in a different way than you see in traditional undergraduate students.”
And as they progress through the program’s coursework, she added, these students begin to realize how their earlier experiences will help to bolster their nursing expertise. “They start to recognize how their past skills are serving them well as a nurse,” she said. “Like in how they problem solve or communicate or their leadership skills. This extra experience can make them even better nurses.”
“This is my second career,” she said. “I am coming in with a lot more wisdom and life experience than I did with my first career. Starting something in my late 30s is an advantage.”
Fast and intense
An accelerated nursing program isn’t for everyone. The pre-requisite courses are time-consuming and challenging, and once they enter the official part of the program, the pace of the courses is demanding. Courses that an undergraduate nursing program typically completes in two and a half years are squeezed into 15 months.
“In eight to 12 weeks students are doing coursework that a traditional program would do over an entire semester,” Gustafson said.
Finishing the pre-requisite courses was a challenge in itself, Hiyakumoto said. It took her a year to complete them before she began the 15-month-long nursing program.
The program’s classes are taught in a mix of formats.
“Theory courses are fully online. Skills courses are hybrid with intensive in-person sessions on our Bethel campus. Our practical courses are in person at agencies throughout the metro area,” Gustafson explained.
Though she’s felt challenged at times by the program, Hiyakumoto said she’s always known her professors were there to help her make it through. “It’s a very rigorous program but it is high expectations and high support. It hasn’t been easy by any means. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it’s so worth it. I am getting not just an entirely new career but also a new life out of it.”
When she completes the program and passes her exams, Hiyakumoto said she hopes to find a demanding nursing job that gives her plenty of opportunities to support her patients through difficult times.
“For me, nursing hits all the boxes. It is in the intersection of all the things I love. I love taking care of people. I love variety. I love medical stuff. I love being there for people in their worst moments,” Hiyakumoto said. “This program is helping me get to where I want to be.”