A labor and delivery nurse in Springfield, Missouri, Rosario Kowalski, M.S.N., R.N., was working towards her master's degree in nursing when she experienced an unexpected trauma of her own: she tore a ligament in her knee while walking up the stairs. "It was completely out of the blue," she says, a nurse for nearly 30 years.
Knee surgery and a difficult, lengthy recovery followed the accident. "When you're in pain, all you can think about is getting out of pain," Kowalski says. "I couldn't work at the job I loved. I couldn't even walk. I felt like I'd lost everything."
Despite having to take a break from her job, she was able to continue working toward her M.S.N. because she was enrolled in a distance-learning program with Regis University in Denver, Colorado. "During my difficult recovery, it was wonderful to have education. I looked at my curriculum and felt better. I realized that I was probably only two semesters from graduating," she says. Kowalski opted for an online approach to her master's degree because it fit with her lifestyle. Like many nurses, her work schedule varied, and she juggled working full time with family life. Distance-learning offered her the flexibility she needed to pursue her degree.
"I loved working alone and at my own pace within given time frames and guidelines, so independent studying worked well for me," she says. "The convenience was important to me since I live in a rural area and didn't want to drive. For years, I drove 55 miles each way to work and I didn't want more drive time."
Making the most of a difficult situation, she threw herself into her studies, completing four courses in seven months. "I was able to study, and it really saved me. I had a schedule, something to do, and a sense of the future," Kowalski says. "I learned so much and had a lot of insights into things that I wouldn't have had the time to learn otherwise. The courses provided a distraction from my tumultuous circumstances."
In addition to the convenience, she discovered that Regis was a good fit for her personally. "I really felt in harmony with their approach. Their leadership style is a servant-leader style, and that matches my goals. It opened up a brand-new world for me," Kowalski says. "In my work setting, I see things differently and I'm a better nurse now."
The married mother of three grown children, Kowalski had to overcome another major obstacle before she started studying for her M.S.N. and the injury to her knee. "I was acutely aware of being an older student. I hadn't been in school for 25 years, and I was intimidated by the technology," she says. "I was a nurse and loved what I did, but I hadn't fully integrated technology into my practice, and every job now requires computer skills." Kowalski took several basic computer courses before starting her nursing course work and found that she greatly enjoyed the challenge. "I was really, really excited!" she says. "By the time I took my first online exam, I was back into studying and felt comfortable with computers and the online aspect.
"For me, there is something about wanting more knowledge," Kowalski says. "I always loved school. I saw that no GRE was required by Regis University for an M.S.N. if you took a statistics course in college. I had statistics in college, so that got my interest. I didn't want to take the GRE after being out of college for so many years. I signed up—and thought I was crazy for signing up for an online program when I was not efficient with technology!"
Though she had initial reservations, Kowalski graduated in May of 2007 with her M.S.N. from Regis.
Born and raised in Belize City, Belize, Kowalski came to the United States in 1972 to go to college. She first attended the University of New Orleans for her prerequisites for the nursing program at Louisiana State University Medical Center. LSU's nursing program was the only B.S.N. program in the state at that time, and admission was very competitive. "At that point, the school was very progressive in their thinking and very much trying to push nursing into the academic arena. They encouraged research and nursing theory and were offering a B.S.N. when most schools in the area were only offered diploma certificates in nursing," she says. "It was very visionary at the time. Now, almost all schools have shifted to some type of B.S.N. program."
Kowalski earned her bachelor's in nursing from LSU and started working as a nurse in med-surg. "My husband's role as a minister required us to relocate about every three years. I had always wanted to be a labor and delivery nurse but the frequent relocations would have made it difficult. Relocating did remind me, though, of the variety and job security you have in nursing. I was able to work wherever we went."
After they moved to rural Missouri in the 1980s, Kowalski was finally able to pursue cross-training as a labor and delivery nurse. "Labor and delivery was my passion," Kowalski says. "Every day was a wonderful experience. I couldn't believe they were paying me to do this. When you love what you do, nothing is hard. I had found something I just loved."
Education is an important part of Kowalski's family. Both of her daughters graduated from college, her son is currently earning his degree, and her husband is an adjunct professor at a local bible college. She also comes from a big family, with five sisters and two brothers, all of whom attended pursued higher education.
She is, however, the only one of her siblings to earn a master's degree. "When I got my master's degree, no one was more delighted than my mother," she says. She credits her mother for always being very supportive of education. "We all understood that we would be going to college."
Her entire family has since immigrated to the United States. She credits their Mayan ancestry for their passion for education. "The Yucatan people are of Mayan descent, and the Mayans were a brilliant people," Kowalski says. "My mother's family is from that area, and that genetic pool helped us."
While distance education has existed for centuries, the development of the home computer and the Internet has made it possible for working nurses like Kowalski to take whatever classes they like, whenever they like, and complete them as fast as they like.
Of course, the convenience of an online course does not mean it's simple to complete successfully. "I think people used to think that an online course is easy, like a correspondence course. But you really have to earn your grades. You have to be disciplined, but I loved the freedom and the online culture. And there's plenty of individual attention and more online support," Kowalski says. "You do have to be able to sacrifice time to accomplish the work because it is no cake walk."
With changing and unconventional work schedules, nurses often find attending a traditional classroom-based program impossible. Distance learning offers flexible class schedules and immediate start dates often with no waiting lists like traditional nursing programs.
In addition to saving money compared to traditional two- or four-year colleges, the ability to continue earning a steady paycheck and supporting their families while taking courses is typically a key factor for nurses like Kowalski who decide to pursue online education.
She even hopes to teach nursing after she fully recovers from two knee replacement surgeries.
Kowalski credits her family, education, and opportunity for her success in nursing. "The United States really is a land of opportunity," she says. "You can accomplish anything if you are willing to work hard. People will give you opportunities, and if you hold onto them, you can become anything you want to be."