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Great-grandmother earns her nursing degree

| Judy Berthiaume

Like many Blugolds, Judith Jones is looking forward to many members of her family gathering in Zorn Arena to celebrate her Dec. 17 graduation from UW-Eau Claire.

But unlike her fellow graduates, it will be Jones’ children and grandchildren in the bleachers cheering and snapping pictures as their mom/grandmother walks across the stage to receive her diploma.

This month, Jones, a 76-year-old great-grandmother from Neillsville, will earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing, an accomplishment she hopes will open new doors for her within the nursing profession.

“Nursing is always an experience, but adding the collegiate work toward a degree is the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Jones, who previously worked for many years as a registered nurse.

A mother of six, grandmother of 10 and great-grandmother of one, Jones began her career as a registered nurse 55 years ago, after earning her RN diploma from Rockford Memorial School of Nursing in Illinois in 1961.

Over the next several decades, she worked part or full time — depending on the many family constraints that go along with raising six kids — as an RN.

After her husband of 47 years passed away seven years ago, she began interviewing for nursing positions but she wasn’t having any luck getting job offers.

So, recognizing the high demand for bachelor’s prepared nurses, she decided the time was right to go back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree, an accomplishment she hopes will help her find a nursing job in Central Wisconsin.

Her nursing strengths, Jones says, are in the areas of public health and alcohol and other drug abuse so after she graduates she hopes to find a nursing position within those health care niches.

Jones has much to offer the health care field, says Dr. Norah Airth-Kindree, an associate professor of nursing at UW-Eau Claire who has had Jones in classes.

“Judy is very passionate about nursing,” Airth-Kindree says. “I am inspired by her desire to contribute to the health of our community by returning to the workforce, especially with the push for the BSN versus the associate degree-prepared nurses.

“From her papers that I’ve read and her sharing in class, she is a strong advocate for social justice and to decrease disparities and improve health equity, especially for the underserved residing in rural areas.”

Jones’ Blugold journey began when, after exploring her nursing program options, she decided the BSN@Home Completion Program was the best fit for her.

That program allows practicing registered nurses with an associate degree or diploma in nursing to earn their bachelor’s degree through a combination of online and on-campus courses.

The BSN@HOME program is a joint effort of the UW System’s six nursing programs. Students select one of the universities as their “home” institution, and must complete the degree requirements of that school. However, they can take online courses offered by any of the six nursing programs.

After selecting UW-Eau Claire as her “home” university, Jones enrolled at Chippewa Valley Technical College for a year to earn her general education credits, which would later transfer to UW-Eau Claire.

Then, in 2014, she enrolled in the nursing program at UW-Eau Claire, officially becoming a Blugold for the first time.

Three and a half years later, Jones will earn her bachelor’s degree at the “young,” as she describes it, age of 76.

While close, Jones won’t be the “youngest” Blugold to ever earn their degree from UW-Eau Claire.

In 1982, a 78-year-old earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and in 2007 an 85-year old Blugold earned a master’s of business administration.

With decades of life experiences, Jones brings an interesting historic perception to her nursing classes and to the health care field in general, Airth-Kindree says, adding that Jones earned her RN diploma in 1961, the same year Airth-Kindree was born.

Many extraordinary things have happened in the world during Jones’ lifetime, including significant advances in health care, Airth-Kindree says.

“She was 5 when World War II ended, and 23 years old when JFK was assassinated,” Airth-Kindree says of Jones. “She has seen some revolutionary changes in her lifetime, including the development of penicillin and the polio vaccine.”

While there were — not surprisingly — a few bumps along the way, her UW-Eau Claire experience overall has been very positive, Jones says.

With her children ranging in age from 35 to 52, her nursing classmates are closer in age to her grandchildren than to herself, she says, noting that her oldest grandchild is 27 years old.

Despite their age differences, the Blugolds she’s come to know have been supportive, she says.

“I do enjoy the younger generations, as they have ‘tech-knowledge’ and are just a pleasure to work alongside,” Jones says. “Most knew my age as a grandmother and didn’t seem to mind.”

Seeing Jones thrive in the academic setting after being out of the classroom for five-plus decades is inspiring, Airth-Kindree says.

“There were challenges, but her resilience and perseverance is an example to us all,” Airth-Kindree says.

Whiles Jones learned a great deal from her much younger classmates, her Blugold peers also learned from her as well, says Airth-Kindree.

“Judy is the sole representative from the traditional generation in class with most students from the millennial generation,” Airth-Kindree says. “There is quite a difference between these generations. Since we have four generations of nurses in the workforce, we spent a part of class talking about how to respect all generations, and the characteristics each generation has.”

So what do Jones’ kids and grandkids think about her heading back to the classroom at an age when many people are focused on retirement?

“Their reaction was probably ‘what?’ at first, but they quickly became very supportive toward my goal,” Jones says. ”I probably will have 24 family members at my graduation ceremony, some who are flying in for this event.

“I’m humbled and truly appreciative to be graduating as a Blugold!”