Southeast Student Parlays GED into Nursing Degree, Cardiac Care Nursing Position

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Rhonda Williams

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., May 12, 2015 – Southeast Missouri State University student Rhonda Williams of Advance, Missouri, will participate in her first graduation ceremony ever May 16 when she crosses the stage at Southeast’s spring commencement, marking the completion of  a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and an incredible personal journey.

A high school dropout, Williams has come full circle — from the recipient of a GED to the holder of a nursing degree with University honors – and a cardiac care nursing position to boot at Cape Girardeau’s SoutheastHEALTH.

Williams dropped out of the ninth grade, and, over many years managed restaurants and for more than a decade worked in the construction industry, primarily with Penzel Construction Company.

“I loved the work, but it was hard on me physically,” she said, about construction, which led her to begin considering other career options.

“All these people had faith that I could do anything – my husband Mike, my daughters Brittany and Tiffany, my parents and friends,” she said.

Supported and encouraged by her family, she pursued and earned her GED. She did well with the incentive of wanting to make a change in her life.

She then enrolled at Southeast, completed the prerequisites, applied and was admitted to the nursing program, with the long-term goal of working in hospice care.

Returning to school was not easy. A nontraditional student, Williams had two children at home, whom she and her husband were raising, and she was close to and involved with her extended family.

Her study skills and ability to focus were lacking, she said. As a teenager in junior high, Williams had never written a paper.

“I never had focus. My sister did well. I was just different from everyone I knew,” Williams said. “I remember taking a test before I dropped out, one of those bubble sheet tests. I filled in all Cs; I didn’t even try. I just did not care. I thought I was mature, but I was so immature and unfocused then. I never put forth any effort in school.”

With her family’s support, she found her focus and pursued her GED. Several Southeast professors profoundly impacted her, she said, offering her support and encouragement. Dr. Bruce Skinner, assistant vice president for Student Success at Southeast, taught one of the political science classes she took.

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Rhonda Williams aspires to work in hospice care.

Williams said she took his class during her first semester, admitting the papers she turned in were poorly written. The only papers she knew how to write were the five paragraph essays she learned to draft through the GED program. One day, Skinner asked her about it, and she explained how she had dropped out of ninth grade, eventually returned in 2010 to get her GED and was now continuing her education. That semester, he helped her immensely, she said.

“Each paper he critiqued and explained,” Williams said. “He taught me so much. At the end of the semester, we had the opportunity to write an extra credit paper on gerrymandering. I didn’t even know what it (gerrymandering) was. The paper was quite complicated. It was based on a research article. I had never read anything like that. He also explained he was not just giving away points, and only quality work would receive credit . He told me to break it down paragraph by paragraph, so I started writing what I knew about it in each paragraph. I did really well on it.”

At first she considered getting her associate’s degree from Southeast, but knew it wasn’t going to get her where she wanted to be. Eventually, she set her sights on earning her bachelor’s degree and, in the future, she hopes to attain her master’s degree.

Southeast’s competitive nursing program has challenged her, she said, but she persevered through late nights and intense studying required of students in the program. She applied strategies to overcome her focus challenges, something with which she has always struggled, to succeed in her classes. One method involves repetition, in which she needs to see, read, or write something seven times to remember it. Another strategy she uses is visualization. She visualizes in her mind what it will feel like to walk across the stage at graduation or what it will feel like to pass her nursing exams.

On some tests, especially her final nationally-normed specialty and exit exams and other nursing tests, she felt she didn’t always do well on questions. During tests, if she felt discouraged by a round of unfamiliar questions and found herself losing focus, she would pause and say to herself, “I didn’t do so well here, but the next ones I can knock out of the park.”

Williams said she never lost faith.

Department of Nursing Chair, Dr. Gloria Green, said, “Rhonda has been an exceptional role model for her classmates. I never heard her complain about assignments or clinical expectations; she simply did everything she could possibly do to learn and succeed.  I believe her peers, knowing the challenges that she has overcome, respect her and admire her achievement.  It will be my privilege to congratulate her at our nursing Recognition Ceremony and again at graduation.”

Williams’ ultimate goal is to work in hospice care, a seed that was planted after she witnessed the care and compassion hospice workers provide to patients and families and the care others receive in their final days spent in nursing homes.

“I wanted to comfort older people,” Williams said. “I wanted to change things.”

After working for a few years and gaining experience in her field, which she says is important for nurses, Williams’ ultimate goal is to advance into healthcare administration. She says working as a nurse will someday make her a better administrator.

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Rhonda Williams has accepted a nursing position at SoutheastHealth on the Cardiac Progressive floor after her graduation from Southeast.

She is currently doing her precepted practicum hours in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) at Missouri Delta Medical Center in Sikeston, Missouri. She also works as a nurse aide at SoutheastHEALTH in Cape Girardeau. She has accepted a nursing position at SoutheastHEALTH on the Cardiac Progressive floor, where she has worked as an aide the past year. She will begin her new duties following graduation, and will take her licensure examination in early summer.

To Southeast students, she offers some advice.

“Don’t get bogged down when you are learning. Think of the broader picture,” Williams said. “You know the old saying ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees’? That is how nursing school often feels — all the tests, papers, group projects and care plans — sometimes you can forget why you are even going through all of this. Step back and remember the goal and the importance of the journey. Do not get behind in your classes. Do not procrastinate. I work under pressure well, and I would put some things off until I got to my last semester. If you put some of it off, catching up is brutal. It’s not fun.”

Her hard work has paid off. Williams will graduate from Southeast this weekend.

“For me now I guess since people have had such faith – my husband, my daughter’s family and best friends – I now believe in myself enough to feel success; May 16 will be my first graduation. I have never walked. I am crazy excited,” she said.

To her nursing program family, she says, “Thank you for being a part of this incredible journey through all the ups and downs, the laughter and the tears. It has truly been a pleasure to be a part of Southeast Missouri State University’s spring 2015 nursing class.”