Degree Hacking


Did I just invent that term? It must be a thing – because I’ve done it three times!

I grew up in Texas, daughter of a New Yorker mom and a Parisian dad, and had wonderlust as far back as I can remember. My mom loves to tell a story of taking a trip down to San Miguel De Allende, México, back in the ‘80s – before it was as hot a travel and retirement destination as it is now. We arrived in town after a 2-day train ride from Laredo, Texas. I was 10-years-old and my mom says she was unpacking our suitcases when she turned around and I was gone – typical of my mom, she does not relate that she had any fear about the fact that her daughter just disappeared in a foreign country. But, presumably after finishing unpacking, she wandered down to the Central Square and found me sitting on a bench, surrounded by Spanish-speaking children, having a grand old time. So it wasn’t a big surprise when, at the age of 18, I chose to go to college about as far away from Texas and still remain in North America as I could – McGill University in Montréal, Québec. I found out about the university from some friends I met in a summer program. They were fun – so it must be fun too, right?  I became even more interested when I discovered that, taking advantage of my dual nationality as a French/US citizen,  I could attend for the price of an equivalent of an in-state tuition in the States. Education is heavily subsidized in Canada and I distinctly remember my first semester at McGill costing $800 – CANADIAN dollars- or US$650 at the time. My dad had long before made a promise to pay for my undergraduate education, but I think I had some sort of inborn frugality, even as a teenager. While my dad paid my tuition, I worked throughout my 4 years at McGill, giving campus tours and babysitting, to pay for my housing and expenses.  For me & my buddies in Gardner dorm, a big night out was a 99 cent plate of spaghetti and a $4.99 pitcher of beer at Peele Pub downtown.

Living in such a cosmopolitan and politically active city, the only logical major for me was political science – I graduated in four years with no debt. The problem was, I had a political science degree 🙂 Everyone I knew was headed to Ottawa to work in internships within the Canadian political system or applying to law school. I knew I wanted to work with people but didn’t know where to start. So I came home, lived with mom (Knoxville, Tennessee at that time) and worked in a bakery until I figured it out. Soon enough, I knew – graduate school in Nursing was next – at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Although I would have gotten a great tuition discount for my undergraduate studies due to Mom’s professorship at the University, the benefit didn’t extend to graduate studies so I was on my own. I took out some loans, including Perkins loans, and finish my MSN in an accelerated Masters-Entry program in 2 1/2  years. The first job I sought as a newly graduated Family Nurse Practitioner accepted loan repayment through the National Health Service Corps and within two years I had paid off the majority of my loans. Later, my Perkins loans were forgiven as I was employed as a nurse, one of the many professions that qualifies for loan cancellation (more info here).

My most recent (I won’t say last!) degree I obtained in 2015 from Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. This was an on-line, Post-Masters Certificate program for Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner certification. Yep – I’m dual certified! This degree was more deliberate than the first two, and has ended up making the biggest difference in my income potential. Here’s the story of how it came about. Due to a need at my clinic for mental health services for Latino patients, we were in need of a Bilingual therapist. After two years of looking, we were empty handed. About that time, my boss found out about the Hopkins program and also researched a local philanthropic organization willing to subsidize the tuition costs. When she asked me if I might be interested I was incredulously – “You mean, go back to school full-time while continuing to work, going through divorce, and caring for three small children? Why OF COURSE, I’m up for that challenge!” That started me off on my new life as a primary care provider who integrates mental health into my clinic visit, in addition to offering specialized psychiatric care, in Spanish.

Recently, I started a full-time job where one of my benefits is tuition reimbursement, so I am not sure I am done degree-hacking. Although I am tempted by the allure of a PhD (OK, really, I really just want to be a Nurse who people call Doctor!), I’m not sure that it would bring me any closer to what I ultimately want to do in the next 20 years of my. Thinking of my future in terms of financial independence has made me realize the importance of being strategic in what steps I take to allow me the lifestyle that I want. I am not willing to consider anything that does not help me get there more directly, even if it is ‘the next step’ in an expected career.

Any thoughts? Please join the discussion below…

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