UT Tyler

Life Changers

UT Tyler Inaugural Doctoral Grads Equipped to Impact Their Communities

Most people seek a college degree to improve their lives. But four women who walked across the stage during The University of Texas at Tyler commencement ceremonies this past spring are determined to improve your life.

They are the inaugural graduates of the UT Tyler nursing doctoral program—Dr. Shellye Vardaman of Troy, Ala., Dr. E’Loria Simon-Campbell of Houston, and Dr. Monica Ramirez and Dr. Irene Gilliland, both of San Antonio.

These women became the first to complete the rigorous course of study and conduct independent research to qualify for a doctorate in nursing from UT Tyler. The online doctoral program, which was launched in fall 2008, currently enrolls 60 students from 12 states—with the majority located in Texas.

Each individual who earns a doctoral nursing degree could impact thousands in communities across Texas, throughout the U.S. and beyond . . . improving health and saving lives through their efforts.

Doctoral recipients change lives in two ways, said Dr. Barbara K. Haas, UT Tyler professor and Ph.D. nursing program director. First, the research degree provides individuals the tools they need to improve health and quality of life for others.

“The purpose is to produce nurse scientists who can help solve the health care problems facing our world,” said Dr. Haas said. “The focus of our program is health in communities within the context of culture. We want them to solve problems in their own communities that can be applicable nationally or globally.”

Secondly, doctoral degrees will help produce nurses for the next generation.

“There is a tremendous nursing faculty shortage,” Dr. Haas said. “This prepares faculty to help produce more nurses in the local communities.”

Dr. Simon-Campbell, who is a clinical assistant professor at Prairie View A&M University’s College of Nursing in Houston, said, “I fell in love with teaching and the opportunity to make a difference in patients’ recovery by opening students’ eyes to the full scope of what it means to provide holistic care. My hope is that, through my teaching, I will be able to inspire my students to elevate the quality of care for patients of all socio-economic and racial backgrounds.”

Dr. Vardaman, who is an assistant professor at Troy University School of Nursing in Troy, Ala., said, “I’ll get to teach graduate students at Troy, which was my goal when I started the program. I can’t say enough about the professors at UT Tyler. They are the best.”

All four of the doctoral graduates focused their dissertation research project on meeting specific health needs in their communities and will continue to study these issues.

  • Dr. Simon-Campbell plans to focus on health behaviors of African-American women. Her dissertation research project was “Empowerment as a Hypertension Management Strategy for African-American Women.”
  • Dr. Gilliland’s dissertation research project, “The Effects of a Community-Based Hospice Experience on Attitudes and Self-Perceived Competencies of Senior Nursing Students,” is the first in her program of research on end-of-life care. “Our population is aging and our society doesn’t want to face the fact that we die,” Dr. Gilliland said. “Whether we die or not is not an option. How we die is an option. People need to know that you do have choices when you die.”
  • Dr. Ramirez is committed to studying the health behaviors of Hispanic women. Her dissertation research project was “A Cross-National Analysis of the Nutrition Habits of Hispanic Mothers and Daughters.” Dr. Ramirez, who found that the health outlook and practices of younger women reflect those of their peers, wants to use the findings of her research to impact health policies and advertising.
  • Dr. Vardaman’s dissertation research project, “Lived Experiences of Transitions of International Nursing Students,” followed her interest on the assimilation of foreign nursing students into U.S. culture and workforce.

Location, location, location

Because the program is offered 100 percent online, many nurses who would never have access to this level of education can pursue their dreams, Dr. Haas said.

“We have nurses in our program from very small towns and communities that are quite isolated,” Dr. Haas said. “These nurses would not have access to a doctoral program without this one.”

Dr. Vardaman said UT Tyler’s unique program made it possible for her to earn her Ph.D. “The UT Tyler nursing Ph.D. program makes great use of today’s technology. Between Elluminate, Skype and Facebook, we Ph.D. students were able to collaborate on projects and form a close-knit group in pursuit of a shared goal.”

She added, “I was thrilled that my husband and co-workers were even able to watch me defend my dissertation from Alabama through Elluminate,’’

Dr. Gilliland said she also would not have been able to earn her Ph.D. without UT Tyler’s online program. She not only works as a practicing nurse who serves hospice patients, but teaches nursing graduate students at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. “I lead a really busy life and commuting takes so much time. If I would have had to commute, it would not have been worth it,” she said.

The UT Tyler program allowed Dr. Ramirez to tackle the education challenge while juggling a full-time job, as well as the roles of mother and wife. Her days began and ended in the early morning hours, but it was worth it after “falling in love” with nursing a long time ago.

Onsite doctoral nursing programs in larger cities pull students away from their families, jobs and responsibilities, Dr. Haas said. Once there, they often do not return to their communities, resulting in a rural ‘brain drain.’

“We are filling a need that is not being met by current programs in the state,” she said. “Many of our students are site-bound by homes, families, jobs and responsibilities that would not enable them to just pick up and move to the cities. And with our emphasis on health in communities, we want them to stay in their communities.”

Designing an online study environment of excellence required some creativity and skills, Dr. Haas said. “When we began creating the program initially, an integral part of the program was acquiring instructional design people who knew the technology and who could help with the creative aspects of online lessons.”

The nursing doctoral program led to the first instructional design department on campus. “It didn’t exist before,” Dr. Haas said. “Now the department is up to three and it is not nearly enough to meet the needs of our expanding online programs.”

She added, “When I put together a teaching presentation, I send it to our instructional design department. They clean it up, add music, and give appeal to the online environment. They also helped train faculty so we have a consistency in the presentation of our program. From course to course, the buttons and flow are the same so our students know what to expect and can concentrate on the content.”

Doctoral students complete two years of coursework online, taking several required courses in philosophy and theory, statistics, research, policy and education, along with individualized courses that focus on the student’s particular area of research.

Upon successful completion of all coursework and passing a doctoral preliminary exam, students are eligible to conduct independent research under a dissertation chair’s guidance.

The First of Many

“This first doctoral program has had a major impact on the university,” said Dr. Haas.

“Our university is truly first class and it has always been an excellent undergraduate institution with great masters programs. This is the next step,’’ she said. “This first program has now opened the door for other doctoral programs. We have proven to the coordinating board and the UT system that, yes, we can do this.”

Following on the heels of nursing, the university launched a human resource development doctoral program. A third doctoral degree is in the planning stages for the College of Education.


UT Tyler