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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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.