Nurse launches public speaking career with help of online degree

Jeff Solheim is a lymphatic cancer survivor who started his career in nursing and eventually became the founder and director of the nonprofit Project Helping Hands, which benefits Third World medical organizations. He talks to about how his online master’s degree in nursing helped him continue his work.

What inspired you to go back to school?

As my career progressed, I had started doing speaking engagements including motivational speaking and commencement speeches. Many times, the theme of these talks was professionalism. I started feeling like a bit of a hypocrite because one of the components of professionalism is having an advanced degree. I had embodied professionalism in many ways without a degree, but I also felt if I was going to continue to speak, I would need to practice what I preached.

What made you decide to attend nursing school online?

My life was very full at the time. I was speaking professionally and running three companies, so I knew taking time to go back to school was going to be a challenge I would have to figure out how to balance. I had a choice to either cut back on my career or find a program that would allow me to balance my career, personal life and school.

Western Governors University was the perfect balance — the competency-based program allowed me to draw on everything I had already learned from my full career. I found the online program to be the perfect fit so I could balance work life and school life. I was able to demonstrate what I had already learned from my career so I wouldn’t waste time being taught things I already knew.

Were there any surprising benefits of earning a nursing degree online?

In addition to schedule flexibility, I really enjoyed having the ability to carve my own path. Because I attended a competency-based program, I had more control in what direction I would take. I could see what might be coming up in my career and plan the timing of a course that would fit in with my travel schedule.

Occasionally, some of the courses would actually match my life to my schoolwork. For example, I did a genogram of South Sudan because I was able to time that course to be right after I was in Sudan. I really got a chance to study the community there. It was an incredible assignment, and I was able to contribute in a unique way. I couldn’t have timed that course in a traditional program and I really appreciated the opportunity to guide my studies to fit my life.

How did you work with professors and peers online?

When I would start on a project, I read on online forums what other students had experienced and that helped prepare me. I had lots of tools from other students that allowed me to build on their past experiences and additional resources were available. The course mentors who were in charge of the course were also available for help.

What did a typical day look like while you were earning your online master’s degree in nursing?

Because of my hectic work schedule, if I saw that I would be home for a week, I would spend a lot of time doing research and putting things together during the time I was home. Believe it or not, most of my assignments were written on a plane once I had completed all the research first, and then I would submit the assignment when I arrived.

Tell us about Project Helping Hands

Project Helping Hands is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that sends medical teams to developing countries. We have sent volunteers to almost every continent to provide medical, dental and optometry care to those who would normally not get it. This year alone, we treated 30,000 patients.

How has the nursing master’s degree been a benefit to your career as a nonprofit founder and writer?

Although I had already established my career without my master’s degree, having my master’s has increased my comfort so I can better practice what I preach. It also has boosted my own self-confidence. When I submit my credentials for a textbook, I know that I have the proper credentials for what I’m doing.

What advice would you give those considering an online nursing degree?

Online education is an excellent option for certain people but I’m not convinced it would be a good option for everyone. It takes self-discipline to be successful when deadlines are not necessarily as fixed as in traditional education. My advice is to make sure you have the self-discipline to stay on track.