For nurse Keith Cunningham, lifelong learning isn’t just a philosophy. The 53-year-old former small business owner recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. He’s taking a year off from school to get a few certifications, then he plans to return for a master’s degree. “You’re never too old to set a new goal or dream a new dream,” he says.
Keith was in the back of an ambulance — the nearest hospital 2.5 hours away — when he learned that lesson. He was an EMT caring for an injured man, and he had to keep the man talking during that long, dark ride to keep him conscious. “He was a businessman,” Keith says about his patient. “He’d had a long career. He’s laying there on that stretcher, and he says, ‘I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. But my education is the only thing no one can ever take away from me. It’s the only thing you can take with you when you go.’”
It’s a mantra Keith never forgot.
For 26 years, Keith focused on raising a family and running a business. “From the time I was young, I was interested in science,” he says. “I had a chemistry set in second grade, and built a telescope in fourth grade. As I got older, in high school, I lost interest in learning. Then I got married, became a father, started a business, and put science aside for 26 years. Once my son and wife both went through school, I figured it was finally my turn.”
Related resource: 7 Tips for Going Back to School Later in Life
Keith went back to school and became an EMT. He was soon training other EMTs and developed an interest in emergency medicine. He chose Joyce to complete his RN degree and immediately went on to get his BSN.
“Now, the dilemma is choosing!” he says, and clearly the choice delights him. “Education, advanced practical nursing, or nurse administration. The other day, I got a call from a chief nurse who wants me to go into management!”
Keith chose Joyce after combing through pass rates and satisfaction rates. He noted the school’s low turnover. And he liked that Joyce is a dedicated healthcare University. If he applied at a traditional university, he knew he’d have to wait to get into a nursing program. “I was two-thirds of the way through my nursing degree before others even got an acceptance letter to the nursing program at their university,” he says. “At my age, I couldn’t spend that amount of time just waiting to get in.”
At age 53, Keith was afraid he would be the oldest in his class. He wasn’t.
Related resource: 5 Reasons Men Should Consider a Career in Nursing
Like many Americans, the economic downturn prompted him to look at other options. Once in school, his classmates included construction workers, real estate agents, musicians — and of course, young recent high school graduates.
Keith is sympathetic toward his younger classmates. “They work so hard: raising kids, struggling to be parents and partners — you just do the best you can because when it’s over, it’s over. That’s all you get. Don’t do it just to get through it; appreciate education along the way. We don’t all get these opportunities.”
The ambitious nurse credits many of his teachers for inspiring him to continue his education.
“We have great examples of lifelong learners all around us. Doctor [RN-BSN instructor Kathy] Holloway went back to school after her kids were grown. Dr. [Shirl] Smith grew up in the streets of New York and couldn’t read as a teen, but went on to get multiple degrees, including a doctorate degree!
“I didn’t even realize I was a lifelong learner until I saw myself in these other people. We have so many great examples all around us. People encouraged me all the time, but especially when I went to school. I had that innate desire to learn. I think most of us do.”
Related resource: How Single Parents Can Manage a Nursing Career
Keith echoes the sentiment of many students. “[Joyce’s instructors] are so concerned about you being successful and the experience you had there,” he says. “Dr. Holloway and I still write to each other, and Dr. Popovich is still involved and interested in my career. They have introduced me to recruiters, sent information on other schools … they’re still involved, long after graduation. They don’t have to be, but they are.”
These days, Keith works in the catheterization lab at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem, Utah, where he completed his capstone project.
While in school, he took every opportunity to learn: circulating, taking and administering vitals, charting. “When you’re doing your capstone,” he says, “it’s basically a months-long interview. You’re being watched. … I was lucky, there was a job in the Cath Lab posted about the time I was scheduled to take the NCLEX. Because of my work in capstone, I was encouraged to apply. I basically had a job offer pending passing the NCLEX..”
Keith gave a moving commencement speech for Joyce’s graduating nursing class of 2016. We are proud to be a part of Keith’s lifelong learning process.
Joyce has the highest respect and admiration for all our students, and we strive to support them in the way that best suits them. To learn more about our nursing, RN-BSN, or other programs, visit our website.