Viterbo Direct Entry MSN Program Offers Degree Holders New Career Path

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Viterbo University student Riley Pennington was working as a home health aide when one of her clients told her, “You’re going to be a great nurse someday.” While she greatly appreciated the compliment, there was one problem—Pennington was a biochemistry major with career aspirations of becoming a dentist.

            The idea of being a nurse stuck with her though, and she shared her thoughts with one of her science professors. He recommended looking into the university’s Direct Entry Master of Science in Nursing degree, an online, accelerated graduate program that prepares students with a bachelor’s degree to become a registered nurse.

            “I loved patient care and developing relationships with the people I helped,” Pennington said. “So, I decided to follow my gut and go for it.”

            After finishing her biochemistry degree in 2021, Pennington stayed at Viterbo and enrolled in the DEMSN program. She was one of 14 in the first graduating class of the program May 13.

“It was a challenging but amazing and rewarding experience,” Pennington said. “For me, the most difficult aspect was changing my mind set to be more person-centered than you are in a major like biochemistry. Nursing is more about the overall well-being of the patient. The program resulted in a good deal of personal and educational growth. It really exceeded my expectations.”

            The 21-month program is an intensive educational experience that includes both online classes and in-person clinical experiences. The curriculum features both pre-licensure and graduate level content. The class also included group bonding through optional class hikes and student-organized study sessions.

Pennington will soon join her sister in the Corvallis, Oregon area, where she has accepted a nursing position at Good Samaritan Regional Hospital. She will take part in new graduate residency programs in the hospital’s intensive care unit and progressive care unit.

            “I wouldn’t have made it without the support of my classmates and faculty,” she said. “I plan to keep the relationships I formed with them for the rest of my life.”

            The vast majority, if not all, of the 14 recent graduates have secured nursing positions, said Viterbo faculty member Cameron Kiersch, chair of the Direct Entry Master of Science in Nursing Program. The cohort included students with degrees in the sciences, public health, and even a Master of Business Administration.

            “The beauty is that the students bring their different educational backgrounds and perspectives to their new profession, and that’s something nursing and health care have been needing more of for a while,” Kiersch said. “The program gives them the skills they need to be a nurse, and their life experiences and other education adds to the profession. That positions these graduates very well in the field of health care.”

            Fourteen of the original 16 students in the first cohort went on to graduate. The program has also grown significantly, with 19 students in the cohort that began last year and 30 enrolled for fall 2023.

            “Graduate students know what they want and what it takes to get to achieve it,” Kiersch said of the program’s high success rate and growth. “We as faculty are truly there to help them be successful, and we took great pride in our first graduates.”

            Another of those graduates was Shyler Harmsen, for whom gaining EMT certification and working as a critical care technician at Gundersen Health System helped her discern that nursing was her true calling.

“The Viterbo DEMSN degree was a perfect fit for me,” said Harmsen, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “I felt I was really getting ahead with this program. All of us brought different perspectives and experiences to the group and we challenged and pushed each other.”

Balancing working almost full-time, a rigorous academic schedule, and her personal life, Harmsen’s time management skills are now “10 out of 10, a good quality in a nurse,” she said. She appreciated getting to know her classmates, who “leaned on and supported each other,” she said.

Harmsen is now employed as an RN in a critical care pathway position at Gundersen Health System. As part of this pilot program, she is gaining nursing experience in the medical surgical unit before transferring to the ICU. In the distant future, she may consider a return to school to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, becoming a nurse educator, or working in the organ donation field.

“I’m not sure, but I have a lot of options,” she said. “I’m very satisfied with my Viterbo education and I have been well set up for success. As master’s degree nurses, we’ve been trained to think and analyze data at the next level; and that is what makes this program unique.”