Air Force nurse completes doctoral degree while deployed

Halfway around the world and in a war zone, U.S. Air Force Major Laura Lewis looked forward to the end of her shift caring for injured soldiers.

But following a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, Lewis wasn’t headed for bed. She logged on to complete coursework for a doctorate of nursing practice degree at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Friday, Lewis, a member of the first class of doctorate of nursing practice graduates, will participate in commencement exercises scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Colorado Springs World Arena. She will join more than 1,090 spring 2009 graduates of the university. More than 800 are expected to participate in ceremonies.

“Class was something to look forward to,” the 46-year-old Big Springs, Texas native said recently. “I was able to adapt what we were doing in class to what we were doing in the field. It provided me perspective.”

Lewis was sure her orders to deploy in September 2007 meant the end of her pursuit of a doctoral degree. Her faculty at the Beth-El College of Nursing had different ideas.

“When I told my adviser that I was deploying, I thought that was going to be the end of it,” Lewis said. “Her response was ‘that’s OK – we’ll find a way to make it work.’’’

The solution was the on-line DNP program, originally designed for students living in rural Colorado that was just as effective halfway around the world. But deployment wasn’t the only challenge Lewis faced while enrolled in the program. Her father died upon returning from Iraq, making her homecoming and class work more difficult.

“When things got really hard, I took a semester off from school,” Lewis said. “But it wasn’t long before I received an e-mail from my professor asking how I was doing and encouraging me to come back. The message I have for people who doubt if they can do this is to believe in yourself. You can do it.”

Lewis’ adviser, Mary Enzman Hines, professor, Nursing, credited Lewis’ ability to focus for her success and specifically highlighted a capstone project that Lewis completed as part of her degree requirements. The project, a program designed to enhance relationships among military couples, is both personal and practical.

“I heard from soldiers who had just been injured, maybe lost a leg, or who were suicidal, and they didn’t have anyone at home waiting for them anymore,” Lewis said. “It broke my heart. I wanted to focus my project on identifying resources for military couples to help make their relationships stronger in order to prevent that from happening.”

Lewis and her husband of 20 years, John, are also raising two sons, ages 13 and 10. They will be in the crowd Friday, cheering for Lewis as a doctoral hood is placed around her shoulders.

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