Nursing Program Provides Rewarding New Direction for Career-Changers

Ben Heltzel headshot

Ben Heltzel, who has spent much of his working life in outdoor occupations, believes he has finally found his calling: nursing.

Host of U.Va. Grads Choose Service to Community and Country

Plenty of us would love a chance for a college do-over. Perhaps that random class we took in  our final semester turned out to be a lot more interesting than our all-but-completed majors. Maybe that lucrative career we sought wasn’t as fulfilling as it first appeared. And perhaps the perfect career spoke to us well after our chance to follow the academic path toward it.

For many looking for a more fulfilling, service-oriented career, the Clinical Nurse Leader program in the University of Virginia’s School of Nursing provides a realistic choice.

The program – the only one of its kind in Virginia – enables students with a bachelor’s degree in another field to enter the nursing profession on a fast track. The accelerated, 24-month master’s degree program prepares graduates to provide high-quality, safe and compassionate care that is evidence-based, and to lead quality improvement efforts for optimal outcomes. Intimate in size and in mentorship – students’ clinical rotations are done one-on-one with a nurse preceptor over each of five clinical areas – the Clinical Nurse Leader program received a transformational $5 million gift in 2013 that doubled its size and scope, and expanded its reach into Southwestern Virginia where more nurses and nurse leaders are much-needed.

The nurse-leader graduates come with rich backstories. Here are two from the Class of 2014.

The Profession that Stuck: Former Arborist, Brewer, Youth Counselor and Cowboy Earns Advanced Nursing Degree – and Permanent Gig as a Nurse

Somewhere between tending saplings on his family’s 55 acre-West Virginia deciduous tree nursery, wrangling horses on a Wyoming dude ranch, working at a North Carolina outdoor education program for juvenile delinquents and brewing beer in upstate New York, a thought kept occurring to Ben Heltzel: What about nursing?

The soon-to-be U.Va. graduate had always been attracted to helping professions – he majored in psychology and criminal justice at the University of Richmond, with early plans to pursue a career in federal law enforcement – but finding the right career path proved more difficult. After college and some work and travel overseas, Heltzel cast about in a wide variety of jobs, finally becoming a certified arborist with Charlottesville tree care company in 2009 – a job that, while thrilling and challenging, also left him searching for more.

But 30-year-old Heltzel said he’s finally found his calling, one that might not have come into focus without understanding first what careers weren’t the right fit.

“I called them my contentment issues,” explained Heltzel, who will graduate May 18. “I knew I had to do something that I’d be happy doing throughout my life, something that, by retirement, I’d look back on and be proud of – and something that’d make a real difference to people.”

Heltzel, who has accepted a job as a unit nurse in U.Va. Medical Center’s surgical, trauma and burn intensive care unit (pending a successful licensing exam score), said learning about U.Va.’s nursing program back in 2011 was “like a light bulb going off.” He spent a year completing prerequisites, enrolled in May of 2012 and never looked back.

For Heltzel, being part of the master’s nursing program was a game-changer, a route to clarity and purpose that for him is new and different. But he insists that his rich personal and professional trajectory flavors every aspect of his nursing as well, informing and enriching his nursing, the way he communicates, cares, manages and practices.

“All of my experiences have given me the ability to think in a broader perspective and relate to a wide variety of people,” he said. “I think this helps me to quickly form rewarding and beneficial relationships with the patients I care for.

“It’s been incredible. The way the program is structured is how I like to do things; hands-on learning through lots of clinical hours where I can really dive in. I have loved being in the hospital and am excited about the future here at U.Va.”

From Pulpits to Patients: Former Mennonite Pastor Transitions Into Nursing

Some of Meg Wightman’s friends joke that her move toward nursing is backward: More nurses become pastors, she laughs – not the other way around. 

But Wightman, the former pastor of community life at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, feels the sync of her old and new professions. After a decade leading her 320-member flock – the “progressive version of the Mennonite church,” as she describes it, centered on community, social justice and free association of believers – she’s found that her previous gig informs every part of her nursing, and that it couldn’t have happened any other way.

Call it providence.

“I’ve walked with people through hard times, feel comfortable in that role, and know too that life is not as clear-cut and black-and-white as we often wish it was,” said Wightman, who also will graduate May 18. “When you’re a nurse, you have the privilege and honor of holding someone in times of sorrow and of joy. The same holds true when you’re a pastor. Being a nurse gives me another way to say, ‘I’m present with you in this, and I will be respectful and will tenderly treasure what it is that you’re experiencing’ – no matter what it is.” 

Wightman’s already expansive life has focused on helping others from the get-go. With a smattering of international experiences in childhood – her family sponsored refugee families who lived with them while getting established and acclimated to life in the U.S., and her foster brother hails from Vietnam – Wightman earned her Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1997 and then went to the Mennonite parish in Harrisonburg.

After deciding to transition out of the church and casting about for a new career, Wightman was encouraged by close friends who were nurses to consider nursing, something that’d been on her mind for years. She completed a series of nursing prerequisites at Blue Ridge Community College, successfully applied to U.Va.’s Clinical Nurse Leader program and jumped right in. 

College for Wightman this go-round (she also earned a B.A. in anthropology from Colorado College in 1989), however, was a bit more complex. Not only is she married – her husband directs the art department at James Madison University – but she has two elementary school-aged children, a home to manage and a daily over-Afton-Mountain commute. Then there were the academic courses, the clinical rotations and her capstone project.

But with a cohort of close peers and nursing professors like Tina Brashers and Beth Epstein, she absorbed a passion and focus for nursing, along with a boatload of inspiration.

“They are at the top of their field,” Wightman said, “and are so committed to us students, our patients and to fellow nurses. Professors here have very high standards, and classwork was always hard, but fair. They have such a desire for us to learn, and to get it. I aspire to be like them.” 

Wightman’s next adventure – she has accepted a position as a unit nurse at U.Va. Medical Center’s transitional care department – begins this June, after successful completion of the nursing licensing exam. But her life as a pastor continues to trickle in, informing every aspect of her work.

“In 10½ years of pastoring, I was constantly trying to streamline and improve systems to make things function better,” she explained, “and that’s exactly what I do as a Clinical Nurse Leader –  figure out ways to improve systems. All of that quality, safety and process improvement that a CNL does is very much like what I had been striving to do as a pastor. The two roles are really in sync.”

Media Contact

Christine Phelan Kueter

School of Nursing