The first students to earn a doctoral degree in nursing at Fresno State are ready to put their new skills to work in hospitals, doctors' offices and college classrooms.
Thirty graduates were awarded the advanced degree at a hooding ceremony Wednesday evening at the university's Satellite Student Union.
The five-semester doctoral degree program -- the Northern Consortium Doctor of Nursing Practice -- was approved in 2012 as a joint pilot project at California State University, Fresno and San Jose State University.
The 37-unit program is designed for working professionals and is offered online with occasional sessions held on both campuses. Almost all of the students worked 30 or more hours per week while enrolled in the program.
Fifteen of the graduates are from the Valley and most plan to stay here, said Sylvia Miller, program director in Fresno and associate professor of nursing.
The degree is "for those who want to stay in practice but also have an influence on health policy and an influence on the practice of nursing," Miller said.
The degree also opens the door for the the nurses to teach at the graduate level.
Chris Patty, a 30-year nurse, plans to teach graduate students someday.
Patty, 52, specializes in patient safety at Kaweah Delta Medical Center but has taught undergraduate nursing students at Fresno Pacific University for the past five years.
"Since I got my master's degree, I was always kind of intrigued with the idea of going back for a doctorate," Patty said. "But I wanted to stay in the area and wanted to go to school in the Valley."
The Valley needs more nursing faculty to teach undergraduate students, Patty said. "Some of the reasons why we can't get associate degree and bachelor's degree nurses is we don't have the faculty to support them," he said.
The California State University system was allowed to create the doctor in nursing program for that reason. Doctoral degrees traditionally are offered through the University of California system. But the state in 2010 allowed CSU to create a pilot program for an independent doctoral degree to address the pressing need for more nursing faculty. Up to that point, CSU could offer only undergraduate and master's degrees in nursing.
The nursing doctoral degree -- and a doctor of physical therapy degree -- are the latest doctoral programs at Fresno State. Both started in 2012. The university has had a doctoral program in educational leadership since 2007.
When it announced its selection as a site for the nursing doctoral program in 2011, Fresno State cited a U.S. Bureau of Health Professionals projection that California will have a shortfall of more than 100,000 nurses in 10 years.
"A key challenge in closing this projected shortfall has been a limited number of slots available in California nursing programs, which is tied to a limited number of individuals qualified to serve as nursing faculty," Fresno State said.
The doctoral program also is designed to improve the practice of nursing, Miller said.
Patty said a 1,000-hour clinical medication safety project he completed for his doctoral degree has already been put to good use at Kaweah Delta: "It's taken my skills and my knowledge up a notch."
Andrea Lee-Riggins, 48, a nurse specialist at Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital, is a clinical instructor in nursing at Fresno State and may apply her doctoral degree some day to teaching full-time. But for now, she said, "I like the practice of nursing."
Lee-Riggins said she was drawn to the doctoral program because "it was really about uplifting the nursing profession. For me it's really about obtaining some skills and tools to engage and empower frontline nurses who are doing the work day in and day out, working with patients."
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