Penny Cross figured opportunity would come knocking when she completed the online Master of Science in Nursing in Nursing Informatics program at Northeastern State University.
"I am all about continuing education, and I knew that there are so many job opportunities once you complete your master's degree that aren't available with only an undergraduate degree," she said.
"Most employers want you to have a master's degree — particularly if you want to be in a C-suite position. There's so much more learning opportunity there when you go back to fulfill that goal because you don't realize what you don't know until it's pointed out."
Cross earned a promotion to director of clinical informatics/programs at the Oklahoma Heart Institute in Tulsa in November 2020, one month before graduation.
"The degree has already opened doors for me," she said. "I have been working for this organization for 15 years. They supported me in going back to school and held the door open for me. Knowing that I was graduating, they created this position for me."
Cross graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from NSU in 2016. While enrolled, she and her husband, Garth, adopted three boys — Jabez (12), Jordan (10) and Jack (7). They also have two adult children — Shelbie (30) and Garrett (28).
"I was shopping around for my undergrad degree and NSU had the best bang for my buck," she said. "I could make payments and didn't have to take out a loan, which was great for me. I wanted as few student loans as possible.
"It was great for my family and my work schedule to have that flexibility. Once I completed my degree, I didn't look further for my graduate degree. NSU is my home, so I decided to stay."
Change of Heart
Cross was born and raised in Missouri, but she moved to Oklahoma soon after graduating from high school and planned to embark on a career as a teacher.
"I literally would pass out at the sight of blood," she said. "Then, my grandmother got sick. There was a nurse there who took care of her. She did not provide the best care, so I wanted to be someone who advocated for patients. She paved the path for me in a way that's not typical."
After gaining more than 12 years of experience as a registered nurse in hospital and acute care clinical settings, Cross enrolled in the Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at NSU in 2014.
"I have absolutely been able to use the information that I learned in the nursing programs at work," she said. "I still look through my books and try to figure out how to communicate information. There were a lot of great courses, and I learned a lot in my informatics program courses."
Of all the courses in the online MSN program, NURS 5213: Cultural Perspectives stood out to Cross for significantly broadening her horizons.
"That course is not limited to informatics — you take it for all of the master's programs," she said. "It helps you see a bigger picture and realize your own biases that you might not realize were there.
"It helped me understand more about other cultures and their beliefs. It helped me be a better nurse in providing care to a diverse population."
Hard to Beat
Cross received plenty of encouragement from her family and friends throughout her time in the online MSN in Nursing Informatics program. She is the first person in her immediate family to earn a master's degree.
"They were very supportive and excited," she said. "My husband and I have been married for almost 31 years. With so much going on, there's no time like anytime to go back to school and get a master's degree. I definitely feel like I received good value from the MSN program."
Cross, who enjoys cycling and gardening in her free time, looks forward to growing into her new role with a master's degree under her belt.
Before the promotion, she was a clinical nursing manager and Epic process trainer for more than two-and-a-half years. If returning to NSU to earn the degree was the icing, earning a promotion one month before graduation was the cake.
"Higher education is so important," she said. "There are so many routes you can go — it all ties into one. As an informatics nurse, I provide so much education, but I am still able to help the patients.
"I would tell anybody considering the master's program to just do it. The faculty and staff at Northeastern State are amazing — they are there to support you. I had a wonderful experience with them."
Learn more about NSU's online MSN in Nursing Informatics program.
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