OGDEN — With the turning of their tassels Saturday morning, 12 students made it official: Weber State University has graduated the inaugural cohort from its first doctoral program.

The Doctor of Nursing Practice, a degree for nurse practitioners, launched in 2019 with a class of 35 students. Nurse practitioners are registered nurses with advanced training that enables them to diagnose disease and write prescriptions. 

Those who graduated this year earned master's degrees before entering the program, allowing them to complete a shorter version.

Although obtaining the distinction took just two years, many of the students said achieving this goal was a lifetime in the making. Among them was Angela Page, who with her tassel wore a charm containing a picture of her mother — her inspiration for furthering her education.

"In 1983 I got my associates degree in nursing, and I remember standing in the stadium thinking, I want to be down there with those doctorates, and here I am 47 years later," she said.

But the accolades weren't the primary motivation for Page, or any of the other students who spent grueling nights working on homework and months on projects that aimed to bring progress to the health care system.

"I wanted to do more," said Page, who works as a health consultant for the Children's School on campus. During her time in the DNP program, she helped the school draw up its COVID-19 response plan and is now leading an initiative to digitize its health records.

Each of the graduates led monthslong projects that improved health care in the community and beyond, some of which received national recognition. Students began working on the projects at the beginning of spring semester last year, meaning all of them — in some form or another — were impacted by the pandemic.

For Heather Clark, the chaos in health care settings created by the onset of the coronavirus made her project all the more meaningful. She developed a module which health care professionals can use to prevent becoming burnt out.

"I think it actually ended up being perfect timing because nurses needed it bad," Clark said. "By summer, when everything started gearing up here, it was full blown. We were doing monthly meetings about it, it was being talked about, helping learn how to cope and build resilience."

Intermountain Healthcare has since reached out and asked her to present her work to its nurse residency program.

Another graduate, Mindy Robert, also saw her project given a larger platform when she was one of 10 to be awarded the 2020 International Organization of Multiple Sclerosis Nurses Nightingale Award. Robert spent her time at Weber State planning an adaptive yoga program for multiple sclerosis patients.

“I stopped practicing yoga regularly when my MS started impacting my mobility, but this program has given me the confidence to get back into it," said Jonnie Melendez, one of the participants in Robert's yoga class, in a Weber State press release. "It’s also improved my health and helped me regain some of my range of motion.”

Her yoga class, like all of the other projects, was affected by COVID-19 as she was forced to put its launch on hold. But although the pandemic struck mid-program, the university managed to keep the DNP, as a whole, on course.

Marie Blacker attributes that to the hybrid structure of the program, meaning many of the classes are held online.

"(Weber State is) really, I think, ahead of the game as far as online learning and they have really set the bar high for other institutions on how well you can do an online learning situation," she said. "That’s what I really loved about it, not knowing that COVID was going to be an issue when we first started, but they had no problem at all."

Weber State's is one of four DNP programs in Utah, with the other three housed at the University of Utah, Westminster College and Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions. So far, it is the only one in Northern Utah.

The university's transition to offering a DNP was a response in part to the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties announcing in 2018 its intent to move all entry-level nurse practitioner education to the DNP degree by 2025. Currently, a nurse practitioner only needs a master's degree to enter the field.

Page said its creation goes beyond helping nurses reach their professional goals — the skills DNP students are learning and the work they are doing will have a ripple effect on the health of Utahns living along the Wasatch Front.

"Everything that we’ve done has helped our community," Page said. "Now we’ll have cohort after cohort after cohort that will be doing significant projects in the community to build and strengthen the community."

Contact reporter Emily Anderson at eanderson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @emilyreanderson.

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