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Venango-Clarion County residents build nursing careers and personal success with online BSN program at Clarion

By Andrew Lingwall

For Paula Scalise and Dawn Linn, it's all about personal energy and faith.

Personal energy to return to college as adults, to hold down jobs and hold together their families while finishing college degrees. Faith to know that graduation and career success is just around the corner.

"I guess you could say that I'm kind of an adrenaline junkie," says Scalise, who works as an emergency room nurse at Clarion Hospital. 'I enjoy the buzz when a new patient comes in and needs attention. That's how I've approached my coursework, too."

The 43-year-old Fryburg resident is earning her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree at PennWest Clarion, with plans to graduate in 2010. Taking one or two courses each semester, she has worked full time while raising daughters Sarah, age 18, and Maria, age 13, with her husband Vince.

Linn is back in college for the third time. In 2005, the 31-year-old Franklin resident earned her Bachelor's Degree in Applied Science from Slippery Rock University. In 2007, she completed her Associate of Nursing (ASN) degree from Clarion University. This time around, she plans to finish her BSN in 2010.

PennWest Clarion's BSN is a 60-credit degree program that builds upon the background and knowledge of registered nurses (RNs), and enables them to continue their education at a professional level. Founded at the Venango campus in 1962, Clarion's Nursing program is accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission.

All along, Linn says her academic journey has been one of faith. "I remember that when I started at Slippery Rock in 2004, I had to quit my job," she recalls. "The very next day, my husband David was laid off from his job. We lost our health care, and I remember being so scared. But eventually it all worked out. I learned that you have to take a chance and have some faith. Now, I couldn't be happier."

Enter the Internet 

However, beyond personal energy and faith, Scalise and Linn have drawn upon another powerful tool to finish their degrees: the Internet. Thanks to the availability of online programs at PennWest Clarion, both women have been able to complete their BSN coursework while continuing to work and take care of their families back at home.

"Returning to college as an adult, I was concerned about what the online classes would be like," notes Scalise. "I am a really a hands-on type of learner, and so I was apprehensive about how it would all work."

Having earned her Associate of Nursing degree at Clarion in 2003, Scalise was more accustomed to classroom-based work. "But it took only about two weeks for everything to fall into place. I realized that online work is so convenient for adults who have a life outside of academia," she adds. "You can adjust it according to your job and family demands, and do the work when you are available. A classmate might e-mail me at 11:30 one night, and I could get back to her at 10 the next morning. The flexibility has been unbeatable."

If Scalise works a 3-11 p.m. shift, she can catch up on her class readings during the day while her daughters are at school. Or, if the girls need help with their homework in the evening, she can fit that in too and still be an active parent. "Also, if I happen to be at the hospital or somewhere else, I can sit down and access the class from anywhere with an Internet connection," Scalise says.

As Linn completes her BSN degree, she is working as a health facility quality examiner with the Pennsylvania State Department of Health in Meadville. To supplement her family's income, in 2004 she enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserves, where she serves as a hospital corpsman. "I have to manage my time carefully, but Clarion's BSN has been so much more doable because it is all online," Linn notes. "For me, it's been far easier to manage than a classroom-based program."

Dr. Kathy Patterson, PennWest Clarion's Director of the School of Nursing and Allied Health, adds, "Students should consider online coursework as a unique way of fitting the pieces of their lives together. It enables them to plan their education around their lives, instead of the other way around. It's like attending a university without walls."

Online learning at Clarion

Patterson notes that nursing faculty at Clarion have worked hard to build an online BSN program that serves it students well. "Our instructors have made a concerted effort to use technology to engage really pull them into the online learning environment and create a virtual learning community," she says. "And they are always working to learn new technologies and the best techniques for online teaching. That's a unique level of dedication that you don't see in every faculty."

By design, online coursework in the BSN program is "asynchronous," meaning that students can complete assignments and discussion board postings at their own convenience, rather than being required to participate at specific times.

"I have been impressed with how organized the online coursework is at Clarion, Scalise says. "Everything is set up so clearly - it's almost like being in the classroom in your own home. And if I need help, the professors are just a couple of clicks away."

According to Linn, online coursework at Clarion has been an interactive and interesting experience. "It is much different from being in a classroom, but online learning can be just as interactive," she says. "My professors always answered my questions and got back to me quickly when I encountered any issues. They kept office hours, so I could call them. One professor even invited me to visit during her office hours, which really helped.

"At Clarion, I don't feel like a number," she adds. "All of the faculty and staff know my name. People like (faculty secretary) Patti Shontz are always there to help me out with registration issues or any questions I encounter. They really go out of their way to recognize you and take care of you personally."

A Bright Future in Nursing

National trends indicate a bright outlook for the nursing profession. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that about 230,000 new jobs will open for registered nurses through 2016, on top of about 2.5 million existing positions. In 2007, registered nurses earned an average of $62,480, according to the bureau. Including overtime, the most experienced nurses can earn more than $100,000 annually.

Scalise says she plans to use her BSN as a foothold to earning her Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and to becoming a nurse practitioner. "I have researched the salaries, and it is worth earning that extra degree," she says. "Also, in these scary economic times, I like the luxury of being more marketable and mobile."

Before entering Clarion's Nursing program, Linn worked as an accountant in the business sector. Here, she had to fight for every entry-level job she got. So far, her experience in the nursing profession has been very different. "It was a real eye-opener," she says. "I had three different job offers right as I graduated with my ASN degree. I felt so blessed. I had never seen anything like it before. Also, nursing has enabled me to utilize my skills in accounting and business. That's the great thing about medicine: you can use it to pursue a specialized interest."

In her own career, Scalise says that working with the elderly is the most rewarding aspect of her work. "They are so grateful and kind," she notes. "You just need to sit with them and listen to them for a while. In nursing, it's often the little things that mean the most."

Patterson notes that although Clarion's Nursing program is based on the Venango campus, its students and graduates are everywhere. "We are of high quality, yet we are very affordable," she said. "In 2008, we awarded $350,000 in scholarships across all nursing programs through public channels and the Clarion University Foundation. If you want to earn your degree here, we can help make it attainable for you."

Other Online Programs at Clarion

In addition to the BSN program, PennWest Clarion offers online programs in fields including business administration, education, library science, radiologic technology, rehabilitative sciences, mass media and more. Here, students can earn a two-year associate degree, a four-year bachelor's degree or an advanced certificate online while working full-time, without having to come to the Clarion campus. Online study can be an ideal choice for people who are unable to travel to campus due to distance, job commitments or family responsibilities. Financial aid is available. PennWest Clarion is approved for the GI Bill®, and offers in-state tuition to active-duty military personnel.

"Clarion University delivers online educational programs that are convenient and flexible, and which are held to the same quality standards as traditional on campus instruction," said Dr. Art Acton, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs. "These programs all meet or exceed the rigorous requirements for regional and national accreditation."

Clarion professors draw upon a broad mix of academic expertise and field experience in their teaching and research. Most faculty hold doctorates, and have worked extensively in their fields.

For more information

Anyone interested in finding out more about online degree or certificate programs at PennWest Clarion can call 1-866-272-5612, option 2, or via e-mail at They can also visit the university's website at

"To any adult student who is considering returning to college, I say go for it!" Linn concludes. "Whatever your aspirations are, just step out there and take that leap of faith. In the end, you will be so glad that you did. But first, you have to take that chance."

“GI Bill ®” is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at

Last Updated 8/31/22