Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Nursing a new career November 24, 2008 by Anne Pettinger • Published 11/24/08

MSU's program is helping men redefine traditional notions about nursing

From left: Adam Geiser, Mike Kurz, John Mikkelsen, Jason Myers. Photos by Kelly Gorham.
From left: Adam Geiser, Mike Kurz, John Mikkelsen, Jason Myers. Photos by Kelly Gorham.

Adam Geiser decided to switch careers the day he helped deliver his first-born son.
"I got to catch my first boy," the 26-year-old Montana State University student said. "That' s when I decided on nursing. It just felt like it was right."

Geiser promptly abandoned the other jobs he had tried out over the years, including painting, delivering furniture and controlling pests, and took the steps to enroll in MSU' s nursing school.

Finances largely influenced Geiser' s decision to become a nurse. With three sons all under the age of 5, he and his wife hope he will be able to make enough to allow her to stay at home with their boys.

But he also is looking forward to working in a field in which he can make a difference to others.

"I found something I really cared about," he said simply.

Geiser is just one of a growing number of men in Montana who are joining a profession that traditionally has been a female stronghold. Citing flexible schedules, financial security and a desire to be part of a career that is both intellectually and emotionally stimulating, these men are redefining traditional notions about nursing.

A career with benefits

Like Geiser, Mike Kurz has held many different jobs in his life, including stints as a ceramicist, a teacher, a carpenter and a small business owner. Now, as a 41-year-old father of three daughters, he' s studying to become a nurse.

"Part of the impetus for me to go into nursing was to find a job where (my family and I) could afford to stay in Montana," Kurz said. "But then the more I found out about nursing, the more excited I got about it. I haven' t found anything I haven' t enjoyed."

Before entering MSU' s nursing program, Kurz, who grew up in Chicago, studied ceramics, earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Puget Sound in 1991 and an M.F.A. from the University of Montana in 1998. He helped found The Clay Studio in Missoula, where he taught for about eight years. He' s also worked construction on and off for about 18 years, including six years as the owner of his own business. At times, he' s managed up to as many as seven employees.

"I really enjoy building, but I found as the owner, I could see I would quickly be burned out on the management side," Kurz said. "I started looking at other options, like nursing."

Being a nurse appeals to Kurz for a variety of reasons. Though he likes working with his hands as a carpenter, he' s encountered some shoulder problems over the years and is looking forward to a career that is less physically demanding. He thinks working a nurse' s schedule of three 12-hour days per week, instead of running his own construction business as he currently does, will allow him to spend more time with his daughters, who are ages 10, 7 and 4. He and his wife also have considered the benefits of his working as a traveling nurse, so their family could live in new, varied places.

"There will be lots of opportunities as a nurse to find a job in Missoula or travel," Kurz said. "I might not end up in my ideal job here right away, but I' ll end up in a job."

Endless possibilities

Like Kurz, John Mikkelsen entered MSU' s nursing program after exploring other options. The 30-year-old North Dakota native earned his first degree, in elementary education, from the University of North Dakota in 2001.

He then moved to Telluride, Colo., where he was a substitute teacher and snowboard instructor, but he soon decided to move to Missoula so that he could be closer to home while still enjoying the Rocky Mountains.

After subbing for several years in Missoula, Mikkelsen decided to explore nursing, a career he also had considered while working as an orderly in a hospital during college.

Nationally, approximately 6 percent of nurses are male, while males make up about 10 percent of the upper division students in MSU' s nursing program.

"When I moved to Missoula, I heard it would take three years to get a teaching job. I didn' t believe it at the time, but it was true," he said.

"Meanwhile, as I was searching for teaching jobs, I saw 40 jobs (for registered nurses) advertised in the paper every day," he said. "I also got to know some male nurses in Missoula; two were on my hockey team and one was always at the golf course where I work."

Mikkelsen worked as a substitute teacher for two years, and was offered a permanent position in his third year. But by then, he had just been accepted into MSU' s nursing program.

"I didn' t want to give away my place in the program," Mikkelsen said. "It was kind of a 'now-or-never' feeling at that point. I knew I could always go back to education if I wanted."

Mikkelsen likes the nurse' s schedule of working just three long days a week. He' d eventually like to have a family, and the financial security and diverse opportunities nurses enjoy appeals to him for that reason, too.

Mikkelsen also likes how nursing requires both scientific skills and an ability to work well with people.

"As a nurse, you have to be analytical, scientific and meticulous, but you have to remember the patient, too," he said. "You can' t forget who you' re taking care of."

Down the road, Mikkelsen envisions combining education and nursing, perhaps by becoming a professor in a program like MSU' s.

"I loved education, but I couldn' t see doing that for 30 years," he said. "With nursing, the possibilities are infinite."

A career for Montana men

Diverse career opportunities available to nurses might be one reason the field is growing in states like Montana, said Jean Shreffler-Grant, director of the MSU College of Nursing' s Missoula campus.

"I think the West has more men in nursing," she said. Nationally, approximately 6 percent of nurses are male, she added, while males make up about 10 percent of the upper division students in MSU' s nursing program, a statistic that has held steady for a number of years. Shreffler-Grant suspects that' s because many of the state' s traditional male careers, such as forestry, haven' t been doing well economically.

Men also have more of an opportunity to see other men as role models in the profession than they used to, she said. "We see men practicing nursing here,"

Shreffler-Grant contends that the combination of art and science skills necessary to be a good nurse occurs in both sexes.

"Lots of technological and physiological details must be understood, but we also need people who have excellent caring and communication skills," she said. "The art of nursing involves caring for people --making someone comfortable, soothing someone' s pain, dealing with families and dying patients."

Statewide program

Since its inception in 1937, the MSU College of Nursing has been a multi-campus program so that it can make the best use of educational and clinical resources in the state, Shreffler-Grant said. The college' s administration is located on the main campus of MSU in Bozeman, where most undergraduate students complete lower division nursing requirements, taking such courses as health policy, politics, leadership and management. Students then move to one of five campuses, located in Bozeman, Billings, Great Falls, Kalispell and Missoula, to complete their upper division clinical courses.

"It is wonderful that men are rediscovering this field. It is full of opportunity, and it is important that the health care work force reflect the population for whom we care. Gender diversity is as important as ethnic and racial diversity." --Elizabeth Nichols, College of nursing dean

Elizabeth Nichols, dean of MSU' s College of Nursing, points out that actually, males have had a long history in the field.

"Men have had an important place in nursing for centuries," Nichols said. "Nursing was a male occupation as far back as the Byzantine Empire in 330 A.D. More recently, men provided nursing services during the Crusades, the U.S. Civil War, and the Franco-Prussian War.

"It is wonderful that men are rediscovering this field," Nichols added. "It is full of opportunity, and it is important that the health care work force reflect the population for whom we care. Gender diversity is as important as ethnic and racial diversity."

A comfortable minority

Jason Myers, who is in his second semester of the program, said he is drawn to nursing because of its reputation.

"It' s a well-respected profession," said Myers, 29. "Anytime you hear someone say they' re a nurse, they usually say it with pride. And when I told people I was thinking about going into nursing, they would tell me about people they knew who were nurses. They appreciated them. That really helped."

As far as being a male nurse in a field that has stereotypically been regarded as female territory, Geiser, Kurz, Mikkelsen and Myers all say it is essentially a non-issue for them.

Part of that may be attributable to what Shreffler-Grant calls an unusual amount of maturity among the men in the MSU program.

"I think men know coming into nursing that they' ll be in the minority," she said. "So there' s a certain amount of self-selection. They' re probably more mature and broad-minded men."

Mikkelsen, for one, is comfortable being one of just five males in his class of 24 students. He said the entire group is tight-knit, often socializing outside of the program and helping to celebrate each other' s birthdays.

"Throughout history, there have definitely been both male and female nurses," he added. "I feel like this society has totally accepted men as nurses now."