From an island to a pandemic: Suzanne Sullivan's virtual learning journey

Headshot of Suzanne Sullivan.

Suzanne Sullivan, PhD, MBA, RN, CHPN, is no stranger to virtual learning.

“UB was so generous with me. The School of Nursing went out of the way to support me as a distance student, and I bonded with so many of the people here. I knew that I had found my home.”
Suzanne Sullivan, PhD, MBA, RN, CHPN, Assistant Professor

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit and schools around the country were scrambling to transition to an online learning format, she knew exactly what to expect.

“I’ve been a student of distance learning for my entire education,” she says. “I’ve experienced it the whole way through when nobody else was really doing it.”

Sullivan grew up in Summerland Key, an island in the lower Florida Keys about 20 miles east of Key West. As an adult, she moved to Key West, where she raised her son.

“When people think of Key West, they think of the vacation experience,” she says. “But it’s actually a very rural, medically underserved area that's secluded from a lot of resources. We used to joke that we were closer to Havana than Walmart,” she laughs. 

A dial-up education.

Sullivan’s location made the choice to go back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing particularly challenging. With two associates degrees—one in nursing and one in liberal arts—and a 2-year-old son at home, she decided to enroll in a virtual program at the University of Phoenix. 

“I wanted to further my nursing education, but I lived on an island with a 2-year-old,” she says. “What was I going to do? The University of Phoenix was one of the only programs offering a fully online education at the time, so it made sense for me.”

Sullivan started her program in 2003 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2005.

“Could you imagine completing an online education with dial-up internet?” she jokes. “Things were much different back then. There were no hybrid courses, no video streaming. It didn’t exist. Instead, it was very cookie-cutter, filled with discussion boards and papers.”

Fast forward a few years, and Sullivan found herself working in as the director of access and quality at the Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice of the Florida Keys in Key West. Her time at the VNA inspired her to go back to school to get her master’s degree in business administration with a specialization in health care administration and innovation entrepreneurship from Northeastern University in Boston.

“I was an early adopter of this program, as well,” she says. “I was only the second year of the distance MBA program. While it was more customized than my experience with my online bachelor’s program, there was still a lot of disconnects. The asynchronous format made it challenging to connect with peers and talk to my teachers.”

From there, she transitioned to owning a consulting business.

“This was in 2012, shortly after the Affordable Care Act has passed,” she says. “I helped organizations transition to electronic health records and achieve Meaningful Use.”

Happening upon a PhD.

While she was consulting, a task she admittedly disliked, Sullivan was also doing something she loved: Working as an adjunct faculty member teaching fundamental in nursing and nursing clinicals at Florida Keys Community College. Then one day, she received notification that the college audited their programs and found her unqualified to teach because her master’s degree was not in nursing.

"I asked myself: Now what?” she says. “I always knew I wanted to be in education. If I could have any job, it would have been to teach. But I didn’t have the qualifications.”

Sullivan approached her husband with the idea to earn another master’s degree in nursing so that she could continue to teach. But he had another suggestion for her: A PhD in nursing.

“I was 35 years old at this point, so my first thought was: What do you mean a PhD?” she says. “I never thought about earning my PhD, but I started to like the idea so I began to learn what the process involved."

Sullivan was still living in Key West at the time, which made it even harder for her to find a PhD program that fit her life.

“I could have gone to Miami, but the programs there weren’t fully distanced,” she says. “A drive to Miami would take three and a half hours, and there was only one road, which meant you could get stuck for an indefinite period of time. I didn’t want to do that with my son still young.”

Then, she learned of UB’s PhD in nursing program, which was a fully distance option. She took the leap and began the process in 2013.

“UB's PhD program was exactly what I was looking for,” she says. “It had live classroom time, which meant I could interact in real-time with my classmates and professors. This gave me such a sense of community for the first time. I decided I wanted to stay at UB because it was the first real connection I had with a program.”

A non-traditional route home.

Once Sullivan completed her degree in 2018, she joined the School of Nursing faculty as an assistant professor of nursing.

“I finished my dissertation in December and started working at UB the following September,” she says. “My son was still in high school, so I taught remotely for the first year. I would fly back and forth every few weeks to see people in person, but the majority of the time I taught remotely.”

When Sullivan began her education, her son was 2 years old. When she completed it, he was 19. Once he graduated from high school and went off to the University of Florida, she decided to move to Buffalo full-time.

“UB was so generous with me,” she says. “The School of Nursing went out of the way to support me as a distance student, and I bonded with so many of the people here. I knew that I had found my home.” 

In her current role, Sullivan splits her time between teaching and her research, which focuses on developing personalized approaches for supporting older adults in the community with serious illness decision-making. Her goal is to maximize quality-of-life at end-of-life by supporting transitions to community-based supportive care systems such as hospice and palliative care. 

“I spent 20 years watching people get admitted to hospice and seeing how underprepared they were,” she explains. “They didn’t know they were dying and they had nothing in order. It was hard to see that suffering for so long—so I decided I needed to think of ways to make that better.”

Sullivan believes that it was her non-traditional educational path that brought her to this point.

"As a first-generation student, I didn’t go to a top undergraduate school or go off to live in a dorm,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean people who take that route don’t belong in academia. I think there’s real value in the fact that I didn’t happen upon my PhD until I was 35. I was able to bring personal experience into my nursing and my research.”

While she’s not exactly sure how the future of education will look, she hopes flexibility will empower more non-traditional students to follow their educational pursuits.

“Looking back, remote learning was the only option for me. But now everyone is doing it,” she says. “It used to be hard finding remote programs, but I think technology the age of COVID-19 will change that.”

Learn more about Suzanne Sullivan.

Story by Grace Gerass

Published October 28, 2020