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Map of the Outreach sites: Elizabethtown, Springfield, Pippa Passes, Prestonsburg, Ashland, Barbourville, Lexington, Paducah, Corbin, La Grange, Bellarmine

Features

The Outreach: For 25 years, Nursing faculty traveled state

Spring 2021

 

 

Were You Involved in the Outreach?

Bellarmine University is collecting material related to the Outreach program for its archives. Whether you were a faculty member or a student, we’d love to hear your story and see your photos. Write to us at letters@bellarmine.edu.



By Dr. Mary Ellen Pike ’80, Dr. Lori Minton ’03/’10 and Dr. Joan Masters 

The educational challenges posed by the novel coronavirus over the past year have put distance learning at Bellarmine in the spotlight. But what most people don’t know is that the university offered a much less heralded distance learning effort from 1983 to 2007. Informally known as “the Outreach,” the program offered BSN and MSN degrees at sites across Kentucky, allowing approximately 500 students to complete a Bellarmine Nursing degree without attending classes on the Louisville campus. 

The Outreach embraced a population, mostly women, who were eager to learn but had few options for higher education. While it provided unique opportunities for nurses in rural areas to continue their education, no attempt had been made to document or to determine the significance of the program to its graduates and the university.  

In early 2020, we conducted a two-part historical case study that included a 37-question survey of RN-BSN, RN-MSN, and MSN Outreach graduates. Alumni who completed the survey were asked if they would like to participate later in an individual interview or a focus group by mailing a separate form with their contact information. Six alumni were individually interviewed, as well as 19 administrators, faculty and staff who were involved with the Outreach and for whom contact information was available. Two interview transcripts from the Bellarmine library archives were also reviewed. 

These interviews finally helped to provide answers to the question repeatedly asked over the years by those who were involved with the Outreach: How did it affect the careers and personal lives of its students?   

 

The Inspiration 

Bellarmine’s 1968 merger with Ursuline College initially improved its enrollment and financial status, but it was not long before these concerns again threatened the newly formed institution. In his 1979 Five-Year Plan for Bellarmine College, Dr. Eugene Petrik, Bellarmine’s second president, included “increased enrollment” as a goal. Dr. Bob Pfaadt, a retired History professor who was then vice president of Student Affairs, recalls that he, Petrik and Admissions Director Al Burke sought ideas to increase enrollment beyond Jefferson County.  

"Finally, a place to say how grateful I am for my education at Bellarmine. I am now 83 years old, slightly forgetful, but ever grateful to God that He led me to Bellarmine."--an alumna of the Outreach

Several years earlier, the idea of targeting adult students such as registered nurses with a hospital diploma or associate degree who sought a BSN had resulted in the 1977 opening of Bellarmine’s first nursing program, the RN-BSN.  

In early 1983, nursing faculty realized that many nursing students drove to Bellarmine from the Elizabethtown and Bardstown areas and that it would make sense to offer RN-BSN classes at Hardin Memorial Hospital in Elizabethtown and at St. Catharine College in Springfield. Nursing Dean Ann Kleine-Kracht and Petrik had explored a modular program designed by the California State University system for teaching registered nurses pursuing a baccalaureate in nursing degree in which students met with faculty three weekends during the semester, from 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. 

Adopting this schedule, the first Outreach class was offered at Hardin Memorial Hospital in the fall of 1983.  

The following year, Kleine-Kracht received a call from Pat Willis (’88), a registered nurse from Prestonsburg, Kentucky, who said that a group of nurses there wanted to pursue BSNs but could not find a state university to bring classes to the area. The group had acquired a list of Kentucky colleges and universities and was calling them in alphabetical order. The first two colleges on the list, Alice Lloyd and Asbury, did not have nursing programs. 

The third school was Bellarmine College.  

With a young faculty open to innovation, a dean committed to increasing the level of nursing education throughout Kentucky, and a president seeking to develop leaders and increase enrollment, it was a perfect match for the aspirational nurses in Prestonsburg. 

Kleine-Kracht and Dr. John Oppelt, vice president of Academics, visited Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, about 30 miles from Prestonsburg, and met with a group of approximately 50 enthusiastic nurses interested in learning about Bellarmine’s program. In the summer of 1984, Alice Lloyd held the first Outreach classes in Eastern Kentucky. Within just two years, six Outreach sites were operating, each offering two to six courses for BSN and MSN students. By the mid-1990s, Ashland was the sole Outreach site and remained so until the program ended in 2007.   

 

Faculty Experiences 

Bellarmine’s nursing faculty recall having mixed reactions to the Outreach program when they heard about it for the first time in a faculty meeting. Few had visited far Eastern or far Western Kentucky, and they expressed concerns about the required travel and time away from home, which would be especially difficult for those with young children. Many already carried heavy teaching loads that included evening hospital clinicals two nights a week. Still, most were enthusiastic about teaching in the Outreach. “I thought it would be exciting,” one said. “Something different, a new challenge.”  

“In some ways, teaching in that program made me the best professor that I could be. You had to be able to apply your discipline to real-world situations.”

Sleeping accommodations, food and classrooms received mixed reviews from faculty. Dr. Mary Pike arrived at Alice Lloyd College to find no room reserved for her. Declining a well-intentioned suggestion that she simply share one with a gentleman visiting from Chicago, she was next offered an empty apartment up the road. Pike agreed, only to find that the apartment was truly empty—nothing there. She slept on the floor and used her coat as a blanket.  

Administrators, faculty, and staff shared numerous travel anecdotes. Most saw the Outreach as an adventure, but a few found it drudgery. Travel to Paducah and Pippa Passes required driving for up to five hours on beautiful yet isolated parkways or dark, narrow, winding rural roads, which caused some concern before cell phones and GPS. The drive home was often particularly difficult. 

“By 3 or 4 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, I was pretty brain-dead,” one faculty member shared. “I hated the drive,” said another. “I can remember so many times having to pull over to the rest stop and going to sleep because I was absolutely wasted.”  

Weather was also a concern. Dr. Joan Masters recalls being stranded in Ashland during a blizzard. She gathered all the change in her car and bought everything in the candy machine in the hotel lobby. Three days later, the National Guard pushed her car onto Interstate 64.  

Another faculty member recounted leaving Ashland and driving into an ice storm. Unable to find a hotel and passing numerous wrecked and abandoned cars, she drove 10 mph, finally arriving home early in the morning.  

Almost all the faculty interviewed discussed the fatigue that came from working all week, including teaching hospital clinicals, and then driving to an Outreach site on Friday. Pike recalled often working 14 days straight—teaching regular classes and clinicals Monday through Friday; the Outreach Friday and Saturday; and clinical assignments at Jewish Hospital on Sunday afternoon. 

In the early years of the Outreach, telephone calls and the U.S. Postal Service were the only modes of communication. Few students or faculty owned a computer or knew how to use one; there were numerous technological glitches and few resources for assistance. 

Even as technology became more prevalent, hospitals and colleges were slow to adapt. Hospitals often had just one staff member with computer expertise, and that person was rarely available on Friday evenings and Saturdays. 

Faculty found the level of teaching required by the Outreach program challenging, in a good way. One admitted having to “step up my game a little bit” because the nurses were quite experienced in clinical practice. “With a group of 20 to 30 adult learners, you have to put some steel in your spine.” 

Almost all faculty acknowledged that teaching in the Outreach forced them to become better organized, more resourceful, and more creative when planning courses. Some already used active-learning principles, but most had primarily taught by lecturing. They learned to engage students during the long class sessions using then-innovative activities such as sand trays, gaming, videos, role play, small-group work and field trips. 

Many faculty remembered the stress of having to remember every possible item one might need for a class, because there was no running back to the office to retrieve chalk or a three-prong plug. They also frequently had to take registration cards, financial-aid forms, catalogs and other paperwork to class for students to fill out, then return them to the appropriate Bellarmine offices.  

Staff in those offices had to revise traditional practices to accommodate students who were never on campus. For example, class stop-and-start dates varied because some faculty also taught weekend classes in Louisville. Books had to be mailed directly to students, and credit cards were accepted for the first time. Last-minute registrations, common in the Outreach, meant trying to acquire transcripts quickly for students who had often been out of school for many years and had attended several schools. 

Faculty said their experience in the Outreach changed their on-campus teaching. “In some ways, teaching in that program made me the best professor that I could be,” one said. “You had to be able to apply your discipline to real-world situations.”   

Dr. Barry Padgett, a former Bellarmine Philosophy professor, recalled that students weren’t initially interested in Philosophy. “But using their experiences, case studies in the news, etc., they grew to appreciate the liberal arts as a value,” he said. “They challenged me to give them something to help them be better in their daily lives.”

 

Alumni Experiences 

The average age of the surveyed alumni when they entered the Outreach was 40, with a few in their 50s and 60s. Survey results indicated that while Bellarmine faculty traveled long distances, so did students. Forty-eight percent of students reported driving 50 or more miles one way to class, with 20 percent of them driving more than 100 miles one way. Hotel rooms for Friday and Saturday nights were an additional expense. Most students indicated they paid for the nursing program out of their own pocket, although some were reimbursed by employers. The Outreach lacked gender and racial diversity but was representative of the small numbers of men and minorities in nursing in the geographical areas in which it was offered. 

Faculty found students to be motivated, serious, cooperative and excited to be in the program. “The first time I taught the RN-BSN students, I was impressed with their willingness to learn and their enthusiasm about the content,” said Dr. Nancy York, former dean of the Lansing School of Nursing and Clinical Sciences. Another faculty member recalled: “They were motivated by a tremendous sense of caring and wanting to help people. They were so motivated to do well.” 

Even when taking two or three courses a semester, the students never missed a class. One faculty member recalled asking the department chair if she really had to drive to Ashland despite an impending snowstorm. The response was, “Yes. You can’t miss it.” She made the trip, thinking the students would not show up because many lived in remote areas. They did. “I thought that was remarkable.” 

The Outreach "was the only place that welcomed you, that you could maintain your job, and you could still pursue your education.” 

 Many of the alumni indicated they received pay raises, promotions and opportunities for new nursing roles thanks to The Outreach program, and many went on to earn advanced degrees to become nurse administrators or educators.  

Alumni also mentioned that the Outreach allowed them to serve as role models regarding education for their children. One student, who was the only one of eight siblings to graduate from high school, wrote, “Receiving my MSN was a personal goal that proved goals are achievable with hard work and determination.” Survey questions related to the education levels of students’ parents, spouses and children indicated that the education level of parents of Outreach alumni ranged from a grade school education to a doctorate, with most educated at less than a high school level, while survey participants reported that most of their children had earned a college or graduate degree. 

Survey respondents were overwhelmingly pleased with their Outreach experiences and expressed pride in having a Bellarmine nursing degree. Several mentioned they had attended other nursing programs before coming to Bellarmine and found that “it was the only place that welcomed you, that you could maintain your job, and you could still pursue your education.”  They frequently expressed their gratitude for the caring and flexible faculty who supported them throughout the program: “The one-on-one attention of not being just a name and number was of great value.”  

Drs. Linda Cain, Ann Kleine-Kracht and Maggie Miller were frequently mentioned by MSN alumni. One commented, “We were challenged but fostered.”

 

Program Contributions to Bellarmine 

Several factors emerging in the late 1990s and early 2000s foreshadowed the closure of the Outreach. First, several communities in Eastern Kentucky built brick-and-mortar education centers that hosted other universities. Second, younger nurses embraced technology, resulting in fewer students seeking in-person classes. Third, as online degree options became more available, their flexibility proved enticing. A final factor was that in 1997, Bellarmine opened a second-degree BSN program, which meant more faculty were needed on campus rather than in the Outreach.  

If any aspect of the Outreach program could be termed disappointing, it was how few in the Bellarmine community were aware of the program and of its significance to health care in Kentucky and to the university’s mission, enrollment and name recognition. Because it took place on the weekend and was off campus, it seemed invisible to everybody but those participating in it. “I think it is probably a safe assumption that the majority of the campus did not know what nursing was doing,” one administrator said. 

“I remember Bellarmine as an innovative, forward-thinking institution in many ways, and Nursing certainly led that on many levels,” recalled Dr. Marian Smith, a former Bellarmine nursing professor.   

For 25 years, those associated with the Outreach program delivered a Bellarmine education to nurses who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to earn a Bellarmine degree. Long unrecognized, the program has emerged as an early pioneer of distance learning and as a long-term contributor to the advancement of nursing and health care in Kentucky. It demonstrates the willingness of an institution to upend traditional ways of doing things and the grit of middle-aged students with work and family responsibilities who committed to furthering their education. During this pandemic, that same commitment to a quality, innovative nursing education from Bellarmine and that same determination from students is evident. The challenges change, but the goal of providing a quality education endures.


Today’s Outreach, online
 
The Outreach was distance learning before distance learning was cool. Bellarmine University now offers several healthcare degrees completely online, including a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), a Master of Health Science (MHS) and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). The university plans to reopen its online-only RN-BSN track later this year. For information on graduate online programs, visit https://www.bellarmine.edu/graduate-and-second-degree-programs/

 



 

Mary Ellen Pike, Ph.D., RN, is a professor emerita in the Lansing School of Nursing and Clinical Sciences. Lori Minton, Ed.D. RN, is an assistant professor of Nursing and director of Bellarmine’s Accelerated BSN Program. Joan C. Masters, Ed.D, APRN, PMHNP-BC, is a professor emerita in the Lansing School. Drs. Pike and Masters both taught extensively in the Outreach program.

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