February 22, 2024
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Decker fellows explore topics that could change the future of nursing

Danielle Ogondo and Christopher Norman are first-year students in Decker College’s PhD in Nursing program. They are also recipients of the Dr. G. Clifford and Florence B. Decker Foundation Doctoral Nursing Fellowship. Danielle Ogondo and Christopher Norman are first-year students in Decker College’s PhD in Nursing program. They are also recipients of the Dr. G. Clifford and Florence B. Decker Foundation Doctoral Nursing Fellowship.
Danielle Ogondo and Christopher Norman are first-year students in Decker College’s PhD in Nursing program. They are also recipients of the Dr. G. Clifford and Florence B. Decker Foundation Doctoral Nursing Fellowship. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

What factors are important for an older person to feel content? Does living in a rural area affect how those with diabetes manage their own care? Is there disparity in the healthcare provided to children with sickle cell disease?

Three doctoral students at Binghamton University’s Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences are investigating the answers to these questions. All three are recipients of the Dr. G. Clifford and Florence B. Decker Foundation Doctoral Nursing Fellowship.

For almost 25 years, the Decker Foundation Doctoral Nursing Fellowship has helped students who wish to earn a PhD in nursing afford a graduate education. Established in 1999, the fellowship is awarded annually to full-time doctoral students who are committed to rural nursing practice and whose research is connected to Broome County, N.Y.

According to Associate Professor Ann Fronczek, who directs the undergraduate and doctoral nursing programs, “Recipients must be high academic achievers; demonstrate the potential for excellence as a scholar, teacher and researcher; and show continued development in nursing practice and scholarship.”

While that may seem like a tall order, there are big benefits: Decker Fellows receive full tuition during their program (typically two years to complete the program coursework; dissertations often take another year) in addition to a generous stipend. Since its inception, the program has funded 40 fellows.

All students who apply for full-time study in Decker College’s PhD in Nursing degree program are considered for the fellowship. There is no additional application required, although individuals who apply for admission prior to March 15 have the greatest opportunity for funding.

“It’s a competitive selection process,” Fronczek said. “The Nursing Fellowship Committee carefully reviews the applications against the fellowship criteria before offering the funding package to a student.”

For the 2022-23 academic year, there are three Decker Fellows. Let’s meet them.

Kristin Pullyblank, MS ’06 — PhD candidate

Kristin Pullyblank has always been fascinated by what she describes as “this cultural construct we create of health and wellness.”

She followed that interest to earn a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and biology from University of Rochester, and then came to Binghamton to earn a master’s degree in biomedical anthropology. One of her classmates in the MS program was a registered nurse, which intrigued Pullyblank.

“I remember thinking, ‘What a fascinating combination nursing and anthropology is,’” she said. “You have the clinical-practical skills and you have all the theory behind it.”

Following graduation, Pullyblank returned to teaching middle and high school — her career before earning her MS. But, she still found herself drawn to the cultural aspect of health and caring for people, so she entered an 18-month accelerated program at Hartwick College to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing (Binghamton’s accelerated program is 12 months, which didn’t suit Pullyblank’s needs).

Once she graduated and passed her registered nursing exam, Pullyblank began working as an RN on a medical-surgical unit at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, N.Y. It was there she realized: 1) The system is broken. 2) She wanted to help fix it.

Pullyblank left clinical nursing, but remained at Bassett, joining the Center for Rural Community Health at the Bassett Research Institute. She is a research investigator, the center’s only nurse investigator, and is responsible for developing community-based research studies and evaluating evidence-based programs in an effort to improve the health of rural populations.

In 2020, Pullyblank decided it was time to pursue a PhD. She was accepted into Decker’s doctoral nursing program for the fall semester.

“Doing this work, it just made sense to earn a PhD in nursing, and with Binghamton’s focus on rural nursing, Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences was the right choice for me,” she said.

Pullyblank decreased her work hours so she’d have enough time to devote to full-time studies. Then, her spouse’s hours were reduced due to COVID, and with a child who had just started college, finances became an issue.

Enter the Decker Foundation Doctoral Nursing Fellowship.

“Getting the fellowship was a godsend because of our circumstances,” Pullyblank said. “Having that support so I didn’t have to pay for my education and to also receive a stipend really made it possible.

“Without the funding, I would not have been able to do this,” she added. “I would have had to stop the program or postpone it. The timing was so perfect.”

Pullyblank has received funding for three years, but this is her last year in the program. She defended her proposal in October 2022 and expects to complete her dissertation and graduate in spring 2023.

For her dissertation, Pullyblank is investigating if the attitudes and beliefs of rural residents — what she calls the “rural profile” — affect health-seeking behaviors of those living with diabetes.

“I’m using rural nursing theory, which basically says that rural people seek help differently because they’re self-reliant, they form really close social networks with their neighbors, they’re not so sure about outsiders coming in and they’re skeptical about experts’ opinions,” she explained.

“If you think about our healthcare systems, they’re centralized, they’re located in the bigger cities or towns. We have a lack of consistent providers because the doctors and nurses don’t stay, so you don’t develop those relationships,” she added. “I’m looking at all those factors to try to determine what it is about the rural culture that may affect health-seeking behaviors and subsequently the self-management behaviors of those living with diabetes.”

Christopher Norman — first-year PhD student

In 2004, armed with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from SUNY Geneseo, Christopher Norman began a volunteer internship as a nurse’s aide. He thought the clinical experience would be beneficial — he also thought it would help him decide if medical school was the right next step.

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.

Since his undergraduate concentration had been neuroscience and medicine, Norman was assigned to the geriatric unit of an acute care, inpatient psychiatric hospital. “The obligation was to be there 4-6 hours a day a few days a week, but after the first couple of days I couldn’t get enough,” he said. “I absolutely loved being with older people, listening to their stories and bearing witness to how they had lived their lives.”

By the following week, Norman was spending 10-12 hours a day there, almost every day.

“I was really finding that this was my direction,” he said. “I didn’t know I was identifying as a nurse at the time. I just knew that I found a population that I really enjoyed working with.”

Norman became a nurse’s aide, working at the same facility where he interned. He then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Dominican University New York in 2009, a master’s degree in nursing from Yale School of Nursing in 2014, and a post-master’s certificate in interprofessional gerontology from New York University in 2015. He is also certified as an advanced practice, holistic nurse practitioner, and as a yoga instructor.

“I’ve always leaned toward holistic therapies, where you’re looking at the whole person and talking about alternative methods,” he said. “I try to help people find what is going to work best for them.”

After relocating to upstate New York in 2014 — Norman is originally from the area — he worked as a primary adult and gerontological nurse practitioner at Upstate Medical University before joining PACE CNY in 2017 as a geriatric nurse practitioner. At PACE, Norman is part of the organization’s interdisciplinary healthcare team that provides comprehensive care for older adults.

In fall 2022, Norman began Binghamton’s PhD program in nursing, where he was awarded a Decker Foundation Doctoral Nursing Fellowship. That fellowship is already changing his life: Norman has decided to step away from his job at the end of the year to focus full-time on his PhD studies and his family (he is married and has a four-year-old).

While this hasn’t been an easy decision, Norman is excited about the future and grateful for the opportunity the fellowship provides.

“When I got my funding offer, it basically said, ’Here is this amount that we’re going to give you. We want to see what you can do as a scholar; we want to see what you can do as an academic; we want to see what you can do for nursing,’” he said. “I’ve kept that in the back of my mind that here is this institution that believes in me, in what I’ve done so far. I take that very seriously and have a lot of gratitude for that.”

Norman’s dissertation will focus on older adults and what it means for them to feel content with life.

“In my practice, it’s been amazing for me to witness this feeling of contentment that some older people seem to exude,” he said. “They haven’t had the best lives. They’ve been through wars, divorce, death, all kinds of things, but they’ve still come out the other side. They have a lot of perspective, a lot of appreciation for what life is and where it has taken them. There’s a lesson in that for all of us, in nursing and outside of this profession, too.”

Danielle (Burgett) Ongondo ’11, MS/certificate ’14 first-year PhD student

Despite having to drive two hours each way every Friday to attend classes, where to pursue a PhD in nursing was an easy decision for Danielle Ongondo. After all, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from Decker College, in 2011 and 2014 respectively. Ongondo also completed a certificate in nursing education along with her MS in community health nursing.

“As an undergrad, I didn’t realize that my positive experience [at Binghamton] was rare compared to other nursing schools,” said the Orange County, N.Y., resident. “At Decker, we had such wonderful professors. We called them by their first names. They were available to us. They were friendly to us. There wasn’t this idea of ‘eating your young’ and weeding people out of the profession.”

Ongondo had an equally good experience while studying in the “rigorous, but doable” MS program. She even registered for the doctoral program right after she completed her master’s degree, but then decided to hold off and enter the workforce.

Almost a decade later, the wife and mother of two young children, who also works full time as an assistant director of assessment quality review and staff education at a community health organization, is back in a Binghamton classroom.

“I’ve developed professionally, so now I’m ready to settle into doctoral work,” she said.

Although Ongondo just started Decker’s doctoral nursing program in fall 2022, she is already formulating a topic for her dissertation. Her focus is sickle cell disease, and it’s a topic Ongondo knows a great deal about.

“My son was diagnosed at two weeks old with sickle cell disease, so I have been working as mom and nurse to navigate his treatment,” she said. “I have seen differences in the care I know we should be getting and what is offered to me.

“For my proposal, I would like to explore health disparities within sickle cell disease, mostly related to pediatrics,” she added. “I’m also thinking of looking at children with chronic diseases such as sickle cell disease, and seeing how certain interventions can impact their well-being.”

Ongondo’s ultimate goal is making sure everyone gets equitable care. And she’s willing to speak up to do so.

“I’m interested in being a voice in the nursing community to make people aware that those disparities exist, and then being able to advocate on behalf of those patients and families to help make it better,” she said.

With the Decker Foundation Doctoral Nursing Fellowship, Ongondo has one less worry as she embarks on this mission — paying for her PhD.

“I was very pleasantly surprised when I was offered the Decker fellowship. I figured that I would be making some financial sacrifices because I didn’t want to take out student loans,” she said. “With this fellowship, I know from start to finish that I don’t have to worry about the financial responsibilities of being able to continue with the program. I can do what I need to do at school and let it be my focus.”

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