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Dawn Nolan Kerrigan shows that goals, grit and delayed gratification can lead to a degree

It’s been 10 years, but Dawn Nolan Kerrigan still chuckles over the memory of pulling into Pennsylvania’s historic Bloomsburg Fair … to do homework. In her car.

Her high school-age daughter trotted off to see Hunter Hayes in concert on the fairgrounds with a friend while Kerrigan hunkered down with homework for her University of Phoenix RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN-BSN) program. She figured the fair had been around since 1855, so it wasn’t going anywhere. But her window of opportunity at work? That was a different story.

Portrait of Dawn Nolan Kerrigan

A registered nurse who had just started with a home health agency, Kerrigan says that as a matter of feeling secure in her role with the company, she needed a bachelor’s degree. 

She had years of experience as a hospital floor nurse, but she wanted to get into the business development and possibly educational side of nursing. 

To do that, she knew she’d need a four-year degree. In fact, her employer asked for a copy of her bachelor’s degree diploma when she got it done. “They actually needed to see it at work. They wanted proof that I got it,” she says.

Her proof came every time she completed a class. Or when she passed, with flying colors, the statistics course she had dreaded. Or when she graduated with her RN to BSN degree later in the same year her son graduated from high school.

“I was surprised when she told me she was getting her BSN through University of Phoenix. I remember her telling me, ‘I don’t even know how I did it, how I got through school.’ She had a lot going on,” says Eileen Martin, area vice president of operations in the mid-Atlantic for Aveanna Healthcare.

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Never looked back

That was nine years ago, and she’s never looked back — except perhaps to admire how her family supported her. A sole provider who was working full time, raising two high school kids and nursing her late husband back from a stroke, Kerrigan says the online format just worked with her life. “It was crazy, but it was great. My school week started on Tuesday and went through Sunday. I just finagled it. Everybody supported me.”

Kerrigan does remember having to buy a laptop computer and overcome software hurdles right out of the gate. “Patient charts were still manual then. It was a challenge to get up to speed online. I really had to keep up,” she says.

One of the things that propelled her was seeing her lifelong desire to work in nursing gain steam. She loved her classes — in fact, her voice still lights up with enthusiasm when talking about how each course opened up new areas of learning for her.

“I didn’t have great grades in high school, and so when I did aptitude testing, they said, ‘Don’t be a nurse.’ They told me I should be an interior designer. But I said, ‘Listen, I want to be a nurse and that’s it.’”

She says dedication and self-motivation went a long way for her. “There were times when my goal seemed so far off, but I did it. It isn’t an easy program, and you really have to work at it,” she says. “In my personal life, I also reminded myself that I could always go back and catch up on some of the things I missed.”

To students — adult learners especially — who hit a wall on the way to earning their college degree, Kerrigan says it’s important to press through obstacles and troubleshoot problems.

“You have to ask yourself why you don’t think you can finish. What’s holding you back? Then, if it were me, the next step would be just to finish the class I was in. Just finish that. And while doing that, I would get on the phone with my advisor to see if the obstacle or origin of my doubts has a solution they can help with,” she says.

In her case, she remembers taking a break from classes. “My husband was very ill, and my son was graduating from high school. I was pretty exhausted, and I just needed to take that one break to reset. It really helped,” she says.


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A leader in the making

Now 55, living in Hanover, Pennsylvania, and working in the nursing field she has always loved, Kerrigan says her degree gave her something she never anticipated — the knowledge that she’s a leader.

“In a couple of the classes there had to be a team leader for a group project. I was always shying away from that,” Kerrigan says. “In one of the classes, no one stepped in, and I said, ‘Listen, we have to have a leader.’ I took the leadership role almost by default, and it went better than I ever thought it could. Leading a group successfully helped me grow.”


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These days, Kerrigan loves to walk her Welsh corgi, Petey, and she thoroughly enjoys spending time in the kitchen cooking. She is remarried and works in the marketing department as a care transitions liaison for Aveanna Healthcare, the same home health company where she started just before earning her RN to BSN degree in 2014.

As she’d hoped in the early days of her degree program, her professional role has grown with her over the years, evolving into business development work. She has leaned on the marketing class she took during her RN to BSN more than she ever knew she would.

“She’s the best first impression a company could have,” says Martin, who has known Kerrigan for 25 years. “I can’t find enough words to describe her work ethic and value to our company.”

If she could find the words, they be determined, focused or diligent. Kind of like someone who sits in her car to do homework while a fair goes on around her.

Kerrigan did finally get to return to the Bloomsburg Fair — and this time there was no homework calling her name. There were only farm animals to see, crafts to buy and food to eat.

After all, you can always go back and catch up on some of the things you missed.


A journalist-turned-marketer, Laurie Davies has been writing since her high school advanced composition teacher told her she broke too many rules. She has worked with University of Phoenix since 2017, and currently splits her time between blogging and serving as lead writer on the University’s Academic Annual Report. Previously, she has written marketing content for MADD, Kaiser Permanente, Massage Envy, UPS, and other national brands. She lives in the Phoenix area with her husband and son, who is the best story she’s ever written.


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