A New Calling
Second-Career Nurses and Nursing Students Bring Experience, Confidence to the Clinic
During the pandemic, people began quitting their jobs at an unprecedented rate. The so-called “Great Resignation” shows no sign of slowing down.
Part of that trend has been that many people with established careers are looking for more satisfying work that will allow them to help others. And many of them are choosing nursing.
Students often come to Columbia Nursing’s Masters Direct Entry (MDE) program directly from college, but a significant number are now embarking on a new career after achieving success in another field. Some plan to combine nursing with their previous career. And many have continued on to the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.
New advanced practice nurses can expect a very favorable job market; the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that demand for such credentials will rise 45 percent between 2020 and 2030.
These are a few of the paths pursued by Columbia Nursing students and alumni who recently decided to enter nursing as a second career.
Liliana Silebi, MS ’21
Liliana Silebi went to college planning to go on to medical school because she loved science. But during her last semester, her biology professor suggested law school. He thought her analytical mind would be well suited to the legal profession, Silebi recalls.
So she earned a law degree and became a sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor in New Jersey, in charge of a unit of detectives. While she loved her job and the opportunity it gave her to help victims and their families, "in my heart I felt that I could do more, and I knew that I could do more in the medical field."
Once Silebi learned about Columbia Nursing’s MDE program, she knew it was for her. “Everything that they stand for is exactly what I was looking for,” she says. “To make it even better and to put the cherry on top, they have an impressive program of clinicals.”
She applied and was accepted. Before she had finished her six-week integration unit in the emergency room at NewYork-Presbyterian’s Allen Hospital, the hospital leadership let her know they would like her to apply for a job there after she graduated. She did, was hired, and started on December 6, 2021.
There isn’t a lot of hand-holding for new nurses in the emergency department, Silebi notes, so the job often required her to take initiative. She credits the integration for providing her with excellent preparation.
Many people use the emergency room as a clinic, because they have no other place to go for medical care, Silebi notes. Providing them with education on how to manage their health can be life-changing, she adds, and “every shift, there’s one patient who needs that education.” Many of the skills she brought from her background in the law have been useful in nursing—for example, knowing how to approach and analyze a problem, think critically, and be there for a client or patient. Being under fire in a courtroom and caring for patients in the ER require similar strengths, she adds.
“You don’t go into your courtroom unprepared, you have to be ahead of the game, and with the emergency room job it’s the same thing,” Silebi says.
When she was a prosecutor, she adds, it was important for her to connect on a human level with victims and their families. Personal connections are essential to nursing as well, she says, noting that compassion can’t be faked.
“Do it from the soul, then you’re going to have the joy,” she says. “That’s the joy that I feel with nursing.”
While she’d wanted to be a nurse since childhood, “that dream came and went,” says MDE student Hindia Omar-Miller. “It didn’t feel like there was a really clear path. I had applied to programs fresh out of high school and didn’t really get anywhere,” she adds. “And then I floated through life with different jobs.”
In her 30s, Omar-Miller landed a position at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, one of the country’s largest public health departments. “My entrance into it was working on cardiovascular health and programs that supported hypertension awareness in community settings. I loved the program so much. I worked with churches all across New York City, predominantly Black and brown churches.”
Omar-Miller saw how hard it was for many people in the communities she served—even those who were medical professionals or who worked in a medical institution—to access health care. “That was a really big thing for me—how challenging it was for people who have very full lives.”She realized nursing would allow her to do the one-on-one work she found so fulfilling, while directly addressing the problem of health care access.
She applied to nursing school in 2019, but when the pandemic hit in early 2020, she felt pulled to stay on at the health department. She asked the schools that had accepted her if she could defer her admission for a year, and Columbia Nursing said yes. “That felt great working—knowing that I would be leaving and pursuing nursing at Columbia.”
Since starting the program in 2021, Omar-Miller has found that many of the skills she honed in public health—collaborating, seeking second opinions, asking questions, and conducting outreach, for example—have been helpful in nursing. Being willing to admit when you don’t know something, and do the legwork to track down the answer, is essential to working effectively in public health, she adds, and the same is true of nursing.
As a Black woman who wants to provide health care services in Black and brown communities, Omar-Miller says, she appreciates Columbia Nursing’s stated anti-racist policy, which was one of the things that drew her to the school. “They’re open to doing better and figuring out ways to implement and envision what anti-racism looks like within their program.”
MDE student Tristen Kim’s acting career took off once he finished high school. He was cast in many short films, garnered recurring TV roles, and made multiple commercials.
Kim majored in theater, French, and Japanese at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, South Korea, but didn’t finish his degree there, instead making his way to Los Angeles to test the waters in Hollywood. While there, he enrolled in English as a second language classes and speech clinics to reduce his Korean accent and took acting classes to learn how to do scenes. At the same time, he studied neuroscience at the University of Southern California as a Tristen Kim “super, super nontraditional student,” he explains, graduating in 2021.
Acting is Kim’s passion, and it has also been a healing force, he says, helping him get through some difficult times and cope with past trauma. He realized that nursing could be an ideal complement to his career as an actor and performer, offering stability, flexibility, and the opportunity to serve others.
Kim entered the MDE program in 2021 and soon developed a passion for nursing as well. “Over time, doing clinicals at Columbia, I realized that this is really for me,” he says. “I just fell in love with nursing.”
He now plans to get a terminal nursing degree. “I’m still thinking right now, but I really do love kids,” he says. “I can definitely see myself working in either a PICU or med-surg ICU.”
Kim feels his career as an actor, plus his many years of working in hotels and restaurants, was good preparation for studying nursing. Acting and the service professions “are like best friends,” he explains. “You hone your skills and craft to perform well on stage. And in order to optimize that, you need to enhance communication skills and empathetically feel the air of the room. I think I can use that in nursing too.”
While he has put his acting on hold during nursing school, Kim came very close, shortly before he started at Columbia Nursing, to being cast in an Apple TV adaptation of Pachinko, Min Jin Lee’s epic historical novel about a Korean family that emigrates to Japan. A talent manager he’d met at a friend’s birthday gathering, who’d heard Kim spoke Korean, Japanese, and English fluently, told him about the opportunity.
Kim made it to the final callback round but didn’t get the role. However, he’s confident he’ll continue to pursue acting. And when he does get his big break, he says, smiling in excitement, he’ll give Columbia Nursing a shout-out.
Avra Messé, MS ’20
DNP student Avra Messé discovered ceramics at age 16 and never looked back, graduating from high school early so she could focus on “making art, showing art, and teaching art.” She was a professor by age 23.
“I make sculpture mostly, and it always was medically based,” Messé says. “It’s abstract, but all referencing organs, medical instruments. I just have always been interested in that.”
So deciding to become a nurse didn’t feel like an abrupt departure to her, even though some people in her life thought it was. “I really feel so connected with both art and medicine still,” says Messé, who is now Avra Messé, MS ’20 working on the oncology unit at NewYork-Presbyterian’s Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. “I’m definitely one of the older new nurses, but people come to me because I’m calm and thoughtful and I don’t panic.”
Messé was happy in her career as an artist, but she wanted to have a more direct impact. She settled on nursing as her next step during a 10-hour drive to Maine with her wife, who is a therapist. They were talking about what they would do with their lives if money and age were no object. While Messé’s first choice was becoming a doctor, she felt her age ruled out that option. “But then I said, ‘I really want to be a nurse.’ She’s like, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, why don’t I?’”
Upon returning from Maine, Messé registered to take the prerequisite courses. Columbia Nursing was the only school she applied to, and she was accepted.
“I loved going back to school. I had no idea how much I wanted to learn all this stuff,” Messé says.
She sometimes gives lectures to art students about her transition into nursing. “I always put up these side-by-side comparisons of the connections,” she says. “There are so many.” Whether you’re teaching art, making art, or working as a nurse, she explains, “you don’t sit down. You’re always moving. You’re always using critical thinking. You’re using tools in your hands, and it shifts based on whatever’s going on with the patients, whatever’s happening with the work I’m making. There’s a real connection there that I see so clearly.”
In late 2021, as the Omicron peak swamped New York hospitals, Messé was working multiple shifts in a row and didn’t have the time to work in clay, so she switched to more forgiving art forms for the time being, including knitting and drawing. Even though it’s gotten more challenging to squeeze in her creative work, Messé adds, “I love it. I’ve done it for so long. I don’t think it would ever not be a part of who I am and one of the things that I am. It won’t be lost.”
Robert Tolley, MS ’21
“My life is very circuitous,” says DNP student Robert Tolley, who came to nursing from a career in advertising, marketing, and sales, capped by an executive role at an international health and wellness company. “It has taken a long time to get to a point, but every single point has gotten me somewhere.”
Tolley joined the Navy at 19. His military service taught him to be on time, be respectful, and show up for himself and for others. He went on to get two undergraduate degrees. In 2005, as his professional career progressed, he began taking science courses to supplement his humanities background. Discovering that he loved studying science, and already knowing that he loved to work with people, Tolley started to think about going into health care.
He took a summer course to become a certified nursing assistant and began working at a long-term care facility. A friend suggested he look for a job in a hospital, and he found work as a postoperative nursing aide.
“That was my first actual face-to-face introduction with nursing,” Tolley says. “And I tell you, I had never in my life felt more valued, appreciated. The sense of accomplishment for that job was phenomenal.” Friends urged him to go back to school to become a nurse, but he wasn’t quite ready to commit.
Instead, Tolley cut his professional job back to three-quarter time and became an emergency medical technician. He began volunteering with a hospice and working for the local 911 service on weekends. With five jobs, Tolley was incredibly busy, but he realized he wanted to be able to do more. He started looking into nursing master’s degrees, and Columbia Nursing’s program was the first one he saw.
In 2019, Tolley applied to the MDE and DNP programs. The day he found out he’d been accepted to both was “one of the happiest days in my life.”
Now working on his DNP, Tolley plans to go into primary care, predominantly with the LGBTQ+ community. “I want to be able to provide for the community that has always cared for me,” he says. “There are people within our community who feel like they don’t have a place within the bigger spectrum, and I want to make sure that people feel safe, cared for, and heard. So that’s my plan.”
And as a practitioner, “I want to see 30 patients a day, every day. People are like, ‘You will get burned out.’ I’m like, ‘I very well could. That’s what vacations are for. But that’s what I want.’”
Maher Benham, DNP ’22
Dancers and nurses “are the best people in the world, but they’re completely different,” says Maher Benham, a dancer who recently became a nurse.
Like many artists, Benham explains, dancers have a child-like sense of wonder about life that fuels their creativity, while “nurses are more like scientists. Their whole perspective on life is a little different.”
Entering the world of nursing after decades in dance was an adjustment, she admits, but Benham soon realized she could be creative as a nurse “by approaching it with an individual eye to the person that I’m caring for at the moment.” At the same time, the self-confidence she built during years of performing and teaching dance, yoga, and music have served her well in the clinic.
“I’m realizing how the holistic nursing perspective is a very valuable tool,” she says.
Benham grew up in a family of dancers and artists and started dancing at age 4. She danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company, joining the faculty at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in 1987. In 1993, she founded her own company, Coyote Dancers, and in 2003 established the Hummingbirds School—a dance, yoga, and music studio for people with special needs.
A few years ago, seeking new skills, Benham enrolled at Columbia Nursing and graduated from the Family Nurse Practitioner program in 2021. She expects to spend some time considering her options before looking for a job but envisions working as a nurse practitioner providing primary care and teaching people about the value of movement and exercise for calming the mind and being centered in their body. “I think it would be very valuable for the general public to just have that as part of their primary health care,” Benham says.
Dance and yoga can change people’s physiology “in a way that will feel really good,” she adds. “Dance brings you out of yourself.”
While she’s still figuring out her next steps in nursing, Benham has no plans to give up dance. “I’m not going to stop choreographing, and I will go back with my dance company. I know I haven’t fulfilled my life’s mission yet,” she says. “I’m really excited about the future.”
As a journalist, MDE student Jarrett Murphy covered affordable housing, homelessness, the health effects of climate change, and other social justice issues. He broke stories that led to real change; for example, he was one of the first reporters to expose critical flaws in New York City’s bail system.
“It can be satisfying to write about things at the 15,000-foot level,” he says. “I did a decent job of that for over 20 years as a reporter, but there are frustrations there, and you do feel like you’re waging the same battles” again and again.
“In a lot of my reporting I would see human suffering up close,” Murphy adds. “I began to feel like a little bit of a voyeur, that I was profiting out of the misery I was watching without really doing anything about it.”
Murphy started watching the news with his father when he was just 4 years old and was always interested in writing and journalism. His father emphasized the importance of feeling a purpose in life every day, and for many years Murphy found this purpose as a journalist.
After graduating from Fordham University, Murphy was hired at the Hartford Advocate, and moved on to CBS News’s national website and then the Village Voice. His work has been published in the Daily News, Newsday, and the Nation. In 2007, Murphy joined the nonprofit policy-news website City Limits as investigations editor and became executive editor in 2010.
Along the way, Murphy began considering other careers—including tugboat captain—but nothing clicked until 2019, when a series of life events pointed him toward nursing. His father died from Alzheimer’s, and a dear friend passed away. Then, in December, Murphy found himself in the hospital for the second time in his life, with cellulitis that nearly became septic—and a lot of time to think.
“One night I had this particularly competent and impressive male nurse,” he recalls. The man was “clearly very proud of what he did … deeply caring about his patients but also so very skilled.”
The next morning, when Murphy’s wife came to visit, he told her how much the nurse had impressed him. “She said, ‘Maybe this is what you want to do.’ She sensed that a lightbulb had gone off.”
Murphy was able to finish his prerequisites while continuing to run City Limits and started the MDE program in June 2021. When he left City Limits, his colleagues established a fellowship in climate and health reporting in his honor.
Taking a patient history and summarizing it for his clinical preceptor felt like second nature to Murphy, but meeting with a real patient for the first time, three weeks into the program, was “entirely out of my comfort zone” at first, he recalls.
But, he adds, “to its credit, Columbia throws you so quickly into the clinical setting, you very quickly get comfortable being uncomfortable, and then you’re just kind of there.”
Within four or five weeks, Murphy says, “I did not feel as though I was a journalist pretending to be a nurse, I felt like a nurse who used to do something else.” Now, “it feels like I’ve turned the page completely.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Columbia Nursing Magazine.