From Waitressing to Healthcare
Jennifer Morrell’s life changed the moment one of her customers stopped breathing. It was 1991 and Morrell was “a 19-year-old single-mom waitress,” living on her own and working the weekend shift at Pizzeria Uno in Bucks County. Across the restaurant, a diner started choking on a piece of steak. Morrell raced to give him the Heimlich maneuver and saved his life. The man and his party were grateful; the management unimpressed. And so was she.
“It never even really dawned on me that I actually saved a man’s life,” Morrell says.
The following day, she dropped by the Bucks County welfare office near her apartment to get a CHIP, or Children’s Health Insurance Plan, card for her baby daughter. The administrator asked if she had ever thought about going back to school. She hadn’t. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life — but a funny thing happened at work yesterday.
At the end of her retelling, Morrell was hit with a proposal — take the nursing test the agency sponsored, and if she was one of the top four scorers, she would get a free ride through nursing school. She took it and finished in the top four. She was given a full scholarship to the LPN program at Bucks County Technical School and earned free childcare while she attended classes. In 2000 Morrell earned her RN license at Bucks County Community College, which she used to get a nursing job at Capital Health Systems in Trenton.
It was at CHS that Morrell says she realized the true power of a college education. CHS has a partnership with Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, and the hospital fronted Morrell almost all the money she needed to complete her bachelor’s degree in nursing through distance learning. She began the TESC program in 2005 and completed her degree in 2007, all while working as a full-time nurse and raising three children, with her husband, whom she met at that same restaurant (and no, he wasn’t the one who choked on the steak).
School was brutal. A good brutal, but still very intense. Despite what she says was the major convenience of distance learning — being able to do it on her own schedule — it was a time-consuming affair. Often, she says, she had to wait for her kids to fall asleep before she could get to her assignments, and that was usually around 11 p.m. “The next day I’d wake up and do it all over again,” she says.
The effort paid off. So well, in fact, that Morrell was able to move past nursing and into the education end of the healthcare field. Today she is the hospital services manager for the New Jersey Sharing Network, the state’s organ and tissue donation agency, based in Springfield, Union County. Her very busy days are spent educating the medical and support staffs at five central and south New Jersey hospitals (Cooper in Camden, St. Francis in Trenton, Robert Wood Johnson in Hamilton, Lourdes in Willingboro, and the University Medical Center in Princeton) about the benefits of organ and tissue donation.
“I’ve always been an advocate of enhancing life,” Morrell says. “I still love nursing, but for me, that wasn’t the destination. My true passion is education.”
It is a job she could never have landed without a bachelor’s degree, and reflecting on the path that got her where she is — one that involved more than one bit of serendipity — often humbles her. “I’m not really a religious person,” she says. “But when you look back and put it all together, there’s got to be something.”
Indeed, Morrell’s path at 19 seemed to be going toward anywhere but her ideal job. One of three sisters and the daughter of a mom who most recently worked for Meenan Oil and a dad who owned A&B Printing in Philadelphia for 30 years, Morrell is the first member of her family to go to college. As a pregnant 19-year-old she opted to make her own life outside her parents’ house, but with only a high school diploma, waitressing was about as lucrative a career as she was looking at.
She worked out a deal with her parents — she would raise her daughter during the week and they would watch the baby while she went to work all weekend. What was fortunate was who she worked under. “Our head waitress was a single mom from way back,” Morrell says. “So she gave me the best tables, by the bar. I made $500 to $600 in a weekend — and that was back then.
Still, money was enough of an issue to keep things interesting, and school was not giving her much down time. But she knew what she wanted from life now and there was no reason to stop trying to get it. Along the way she got married and had two more daughters who are now 9 and 6. None of the girls so far has shown much interest in following mom into the healthcare world, though her youngest is acutely aware of (and endlessly fascinated by) what Morrell does for a living. Her eldest, now 15, however, seems likely to carry on the new tradition of going to college. “She wants to study engineering and her dream is to get into Princeton,” Morrell says. “She figured it out in seventh grade and she’s been working for it ever since.”
Morrell these days is in love with her career and is awed by the weight of what she does. “It’s amazing to think that in somebody’s saddest moments you can let them know that tissue from their loved one, or organs from a loved one can save eight people and enhance the lives of 50,” she says. “It’s unbelievable, the emotion.”
But though she loves clearing up misconceptions and myths about organ, tissue and marrow donation, Morrell is not done yet. She is currently studying for her master’s in nurse practitioner and community systems through the Jefferson College of Health Professions (a division of Jefferson University in Philadelphia) both in-person and online. The schedule is predictably rough, she says, but nothing she isn’t used to by now.
An enthusiastic supporter of distance education, Morrell says she has seen an increasing number of colleagues taking advantage of online courses. “This is just the best wave in education,” she says.
Moreover, she says, nursing education is greatly benefiting from the virtual world. Digital learning allows one teacher to reach many more students in many more places than a traditional classroom. “It’s incredible,” she says. “In the age of computers it’s easy to just log on. It’s the work part that can be difficult.”
From Underground To the Top of the World
When Mackington Joseph came to New Jersey in 2000 he carried a bachelor’s degree in economics from his native Haiti, but no grasp at all on the English language — he grew up speaking French and learned English from the radio and watching the news.
So how did an immigrant, working as a valet and unable to fully communicate, get to be an engineering teacher at Mercer County Community College and a trainer of engineering technicians for PSE&G in less than eight years? Easy — he started at ground level.
Actually, he started below ground level. Despite a rudimentary grasp of English, Joseph was a natural at math and science. He enrolled in Mercer’s electrical engineering program and soon landed a paid internship with PSE&G’s ground crew. There he laid cable while he finished his associate’s degree in electrical engineering and then a second in energy and utilities technology. Before long he was helping teach crewmen to do the job.
Joseph enrolled in NJIT’s electrical engineering degree program only to find the commute from Trenton to Newark, on top of his job, was just too much. An advisor at PSE&G suggested Thomas Edison State College. Joseph soon signed up — and was immediately jarred by the process of online learning. “I was afraid in my first term,” Joseph says. Computerized distance learning was as foreign to him as anything he had encountered since leaving Haiti to join his father — who himself had been here for 25 years. He wanted to meet his safety management instructor in person. The teacher was more than happy to do so — except that he was in India.
But Joseph adapted quickly to the virtual environment. “It’s as close as you can get to face-to-face instruction,” he says. Soon he found he preferred distance learning because his mentors made themselves available to him at all hours (one called him back after her 10 p.m. shower) and because it forced him to understand an important paradox — though the school and its instructors were there for him, Joseph was largely on his own.
“My first term was hard,” Joseph says. “It takes a lot of self- discipline. You think you can just get to it later, but then you realize, ‘Oh, my God, I really have to do this.’”
With increasing familiarity of the online world came a second paradox he wasn’t expecting. “When you’re going to school you find that the more you learn the more you feel weak in other areas,” he says. Simply plowing through what comes easy does not remain an option. He had to put his head down and do everything he could to get the most out of his education.
With a lot of self-discipline and some guidance from PSE&G Joseph completed his bachelor’s degree from TESC in 2007. He is now in charge of training all of PSE&G’s engineering technicians and is an adjunct professor of engineering at Mercer, where he also serves on the department’s advisory committee. He is already taking courses for an engineering master’s through TESC because, he says, “I’m just warming up.”
Joseph says his immersion in college here and his experience as a trainer have given him a taste for teaching, which he now wants to make his career. A goal is to be a mentor at TESC so that he might help others longing to better themselves. Part of his decision is rooted in a strong appreciation for opportunities he has found in America. Remember, in Haiti he had an economics degree but could do little with it. “It’s hard to find work in Haiti,” he says. “It’s hard to find people who are willing to help you because they’re afraid you know more than they do. Here it is so much better. There is just so much that is pretty much given away. You have to take it.”
Distance Education: An Editor's Story
I left college in 1991 after two years of studying criminal justice. I didn’t return for six-and-a-half years. When I did go back I followed the traditional path — back to a classroom full of people, desks, chalk, and blackboards. I resumed my studies at Mercer County Community College, chasing a degree in communications with hopes of being in journalism. But I knew that though it was a valuable start, I could not get a bachelor’s degree here.
By 2000 I had finished my associates degree. Thanks to changing majors I had numerous liberal arts credits to transfer to a four-year school. I just didn’t know where to go. Now in my late-20s and married, I no longer had the luxury of living rent-free at home without a job. Time and money were tight and the dream of finishing college was becoming a sick joke.
I stumbled across Thomas Edison State College in my travels through a Peterson’s guide. TESC appealed to me because I could afford it and because I could earn a college degree — a real one — from home while I tended to the business of being a married man with a full-time job making $6.50 an hour. I transferred as many credits as I could and took distance courses in every semester over the following 20 months. I earned my bachelor’s in humanities in the last week of 2001 and finally started my career in journalism.
Even after the death of the Analog Age, distance learning for me involved a lot of mail. Course materials were recorded on videotape; assignments were written on actual paper. Online learning was just beginning its stride. I stayed in touch with my teachers through E-mail, but that was about it. I didn’t get to experience what is happening with online learning right now — and I’m a little jealous.
In researching distance education for this edition I was delighted to discover how much things have changed. Not just in how distance learning is conducted — although it is staggering to realize that technology allows students to stay connected with education literally as it evolves — but in how vital a component it is now.
Distance education is allowing working family people to maintain their lives precisely as they are trying to better them. And it is becoming less important to concentrate on where we learn than on what we learn.
Distance education has been good to me — and to my paycheck. But like the army, I’m not sure it’s for everyone. Distance learning is a demanding mistress and no amount of technological wizardry will change that. It takes an huge amount of self-motivation and self-discipline.
I am an independent sort who does best when left to himself and still I was shocked to find how tough distance learning is. My teachers were always there if I needed them, but by and large, what I learned was all up to me. I think it made me a better learner. It certainly prepared me for life in the real world, where no one is going to hold my hand.