As any number of experts in the field will profess, one of the most significant developments in the world of nursing education has been the advent of the online nursing degree. Men and women whose dreams of a career as a nurse were previously thwarted by an inability to attend programs in a traditional setting, or the requirement to work while going to school, are now able to earn a degree in a flexible learning environment.
One of the exciting developments accompanying the wave of interest in online nursing programs was the need for nurse educators. As the educational doors to nursing were thrown open, experts like Elaina Mahlan, MSN, MSHE, RN, CNE, FCN, recognized the need for instructors. After working for 10 years in acute care, Elaina returned to school and eventually earned 2 master’s degrees – a Master of Science in Nursing and a Master of Science in Health Education.
Awards & Achievements
Kaplan University, Faculty for School of Nursing
Grand Canyon University, Adjunct Faculty
University of Phoenix, Adjunct Faculty for School of Health Sciences
Master of Science – MS, Health Education, Kaplan University
Master of Science – MS, Nursing Education, Walden University
Doctor of Education – EdD, Southeastern University (in progress)
Interview - Question & Answer
The story of your life at 23 is emotionally moving. Did you have a mentor or someone who helped you have the courage to pursue a future?
There were many mentors in my life who reinforced the message that I was capable of doing anything I set my mind to regardless of my circumstances. This included my parents, various job bosses, church leaders, and teachers from my past. Eventually I re-married and my husband became the most influential voice of encouragement driving me back toward my childhood goal of becoming a nurse.
Will you tell our readers a bit about your journey into nursing?
I began my nursing career as a nurse intern during my Associate Degree/RN preparation. My first position as an RN was on the same acute care oncology/hematology unit where I previously served as an intern. This really eased my transition because I was already familiar with the processes and people of the unit. After several years in that area, I became certified in my specialty from the Oncology Nursing Society. Certification is important to establish expertise in the industry.
What came next?
After 10 years in acute care, I began to pursue my master’s degree with a specialty in education. Education was always my favorite part of nursing, so this seemed to be a natural progression for me. In some ways, the gap between my ASN and my MSN slowed my career development. But it other ways it benefited me because I had a stronger sense of self and my profession during my graduate work.
How did your stronger sense of self and profession manifest in your career?
My first years in academia were dedicated to mastering my craft as an online educator. Then I focused on moving from adjunct roles to a full-time faculty role. Once I became a full-time faculty member I could narrow my focus onto my own professional development and service to my organization. I became active on various faculty governance committees, curriculum development projects, and accreditation endeavors. These are roles that make you very valuable to your organization and broaden your professional network beyond the classroom. Additionally, I picked up a certification as a faith community nurse and an additional master’s degree in health education. This expanded my knowledge-base and my professional portfolio. I am most proud of recently achieving national certification as a nurse educator from the National League for Nursing. Certification is a mark of excellence that benefits your professional interests.
When you were in school, what challenged you the most academically?
I actually found my undergraduate studies much more difficult than my graduate studies. I believe that was due to fears that I would never learn everything necessary to safely care for patients. By the time I got to my graduate studies, I understood that no one can know everything. What is important is a broad base of knowledge, humility to admit what you do not know, and the ability to rapidly retrieve accurate information and integrate it into practice.
What were the emotional challenges?
The feeling of being an imposter that often accompanies a new level of practice was a challenge. Will everyone take me seriously? Will I have something important enough to contribute to my profession at this higher level of practice?
Why did you pick your academic specialty?
Within academia, I specialize in serving online RN-to-BSN, first semester students. I chose this area because I have the greatest respect for working nurses who carve out the time to pursue advanced education. I believe that online education provides the most reasonable avenue for working professionals to maximize their learning time. I especially enjoy partnering with first-time online students who may be reluctant about the process or about their ability to succeed. It excites me to see them quickly become acclimated and comfortable. Soon they begin to see a future with even more online learning opportunities.
What is a day in your life like?
Working online from home looks a bit different than work within “on-location” environments. My day begins early in the morning after launching my other family members off to work and school. I log in to review emails and questions posted within online classrooms. I quickly respond to any simple issues. Next I move away from the computer to work out and eat breakfast. During that time I make mental plans for the more complex issues of the workday.
Then what do you do?
When I return to the computer, I most often begin by facilitating discussions in the online classroom. Then I review student assignments so I can administer grades and provide feedback. Based on my discoveries, I construct or update communication tools to assist future students. Sometimes, this involves planning for curriculum adjustments in the course where I serve as the course author. Throughout the day I am communicating with other instructors who teach the course in which I serve as course lead. I answer questions, provide support, and gather feedback from them with the interest of continuously improving the curriculum.
Sounds like a "team" effort!
Yes. Throughout the week, I meet virtually with my peer colleagues and leadership regarding a variety of issues. We engage in a great deal of intra- and inter-disciplinary collaboration to serve the needs of our learning communities and our institution. Sometimes we work on projects related to curriculum or accreditation. Sometimes our focus is program expansion and innovation. Academic scholarship is another frequent area of our attentions. These meetings often lead to individual and group projects which I then must autonomously schedule into my daily and weekly routines.
What is unique about working from home?
When working from home, it is sometimes difficult to know when your workday is done. But maintaining a detailed and written schedule that is both ambitious and reasonable is key.
What characteristics do you think allow someone to thrive as an online instructor?
Educators in any field require both expertise and passion. Expertise is the foundation, but passion is the fuel. Nurse educators must have a passion for the profession of nursing itself. This means having a vision for how the content that you teach and the individual students you serve will contribute to the big picture of health care. That big picture view is bolstered by patience. Teaching is no easy process. Students bring individual needs to the learning environment and the world of nursing and health care is constantly evolving. A successful nurse educator needs patience to temper their passions if they want to avoid professional burnout.
What is your favorite part of being an online nurse educator?
My favorite part of being a nurse educator is ironically the same thing that was my favorite part of being a nurse. I love it when someone who is frustrated with a complex topic says “you made that so easy”! I believe that information comprehension is the key to personal liberty. Fully informed and engaged people make wise decisions for themselves, their loved ones, and for society. Wise decisions free us to reach new heights. If I can help someone move beyond a barrier that is blocking their comprehension that really excites me.
Has there ever been a moment or circumstance which has made you want to quit?
There has never been a time where I wanted to quit my profession. There have been moments where it was tempting to quit putting extra effort into serving a particularly difficult student. But I hang on to the idea that people who are exhibiting negative behaviors are probably feeling threatened, intimidated, or generally defensive for some reason. That reason may not be my fault; it may not even be grounded in reality. But if I can get that person to see that I am truly on their team, this eases communication and promotes a stronger working relationship.
What is one significant recent development in nursing education?
I think the most powerful change in education is a closer alignment in the working relationship between educational institutions and employers. Educators truly want to be teaching the most relevant industry information to their students. But our industry changes by the day! When employers and academic institutions partner together, it becomes much easier to provide learners with the tools they need for the real world.
If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in your profession, what would it be?
I would like to see greater uniformity between the various state boards of nursing so that education across state lines could be streamlined. I also look forward to online education continuing to grow in presence and public perception so that it can fully enjoy the strong reputation it deserves.
What do you hope to have accomplished by the end of your career?
I hope to enjoy a substantial portfolio of learners that I have served well along the way at every point in my career. I would like for my work to be respected by others; primarily by those I have served. I would also like to have made a significant contribution to the health of nurses themselves. I am saddened that nurses rank among some of the unhealthiest individuals in connection to their lifestyle choices. I truly believe that if we cannot convince nurses to live a healthy lifestyle, then the outlook for society as a whole is grim.
If an individual approached you and said, "I want a career like yours!" what would you say?
Begin pursuing your master’s degree in nursing! During your master’s journey you will learn more about yourself and your profession than you can imagine. This will give you time and tools to clarify your motivations to become a nurse educator. Take time to consider what types of learning environments and opportunities are best suited to your individual skills and preferences. Remember, you do not have to choose a specialization for your nursing master’s degree until well into your program. So just get started! If you decide that nursing education is not for you- no worries. An advanced degree in nursing will serve you in a variety of specialties like administration and informatics as well as others.
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