Former HR director forges new career path in UACCB nursing program

A photo of Donna Ashley holding a nursing textbook

By Andrea Bruner

Donna Ashley started her college semester with a list of textbooks, a schedule and a plan. But with three degrees already under her belt, she's anything but a typical freshman. 

Ashley worked in human resources for nearly 25 years, moving her way up to director of HR, making six-figure salaries and living in nice homes, but she craved something else.  Ashley is now enrolled at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville obtaining her pre-requisites for the nursing program.

Ashley first stepped onto the UACCB campus in the 1980s. A graduate of Concord High School, she took two years of basic courses when the college was known as Gateway Vocational-Technical School, long before the school became affiliated with the University of Arkansas. 

After obtaining her core classes, she transferred to the University of Central Arkansas in Conway where she earned bachelor of science degrees in psychology and sociology. Ashley said she had toyed with the idea of becoming a psychologist at one time but went into human resources instead, which turned out to be a good fit for her. 

Within two years of earning her bachelor's degrees, her then-husband was transferred to Wisconsin. Her goal was to always go back to school and get her master's and then her doctorate degrees, but it was years before she was able to get her master of business administration degree with a focus in business administration management.

She enjoyed working in HR and enjoys people – qualities that she believes will also serve her well as she enters a new field.

“That's why I wanted to come back and obtain my associate's degree in nursing. Then I'll transfer to UCA to get my bachelor's degree and hopefully one day go to UCA to get my DNP, doctor of nurse practitioner. That's the goal,” she said. “You've got to have a vision, and you've got to have a lot of good people around you to develop that vision.”

That's exactly what she found at UACCB. 

“I think it's good for a lot of younger students to start at a two-year college, then work their way up to a four-year college,” she said.  “The school here is very connected to the community. They have a lot of resources, a lot of support for non-traditional students who come here and need help with studies or how to study.

“Even the advisers here, they've got two on-staff advisers who they pay only to advise. At four-year colleges, you don't get that. It's the instructors and professors who advise, and they just kind of do that in addition to their job as teachers. Here they have hired advisers that really take a lot of time in looking at your background, your education you have and where you want to go, so you not only succeed here but you can transfer that to a four-year school and succeed at that program. I think that's a big deal.”

Ashley said she looked at a number of nursing programs and quickly found that UACCB's is one of the top-ranked in the state. She believed her background would be an asset, noting, “In any field you go into, you're going to need people skills. You're going to need to know how to network with people.”

She said she loved working as an HR director and said it was her education that opened those doors for her. “I've been over facilities where I had 1,500 people at one time, over multiple locations. I enjoyed that, but I think as you get older too and you mature in yourself, you want to be able to help people more.”

It was around three years ago that Ashley said she felt the need to start looking into health care. “I knew people in it, and they were very satisfied with their jobs, they really enjoyed helping people, they enjoyed giving back to the community, and I wanted to do that.”

She was working in southwestern Arkansas and was laid off from a job there, and Ashley said she knew the time was right to come home and fulfill her dream. Luckily, she was able to enroll this fall and get her pre-requisites. And, she noted, even though the campus had changed dramatically since the first time she attended, she felt right at home. 

“It doesn't matter if you talk to a faculty member or a staff member. Everyone is really excited to be here and it just rubs off on people,” Ashley said, adding that she also loves the smaller classes than those that might be found at larger institutions. “I enjoy the teachers knowing my name, and I know theirs. I know what town they live in.”

She said some people were surprised she was getting a different degree and changing careers, but it may not be so different from what she was doing in HR.

“I'd like to work as an RN while I'm getting my doctor of nurse practitioner, and then work with that a little bit because I really want to get involved with the community and someday, maybe work up to hospital administration,” she said. 

Ashley said she'd like to work at a hospital for a year or so, then practice in a clinic setting to have a different exposure and experience. She'd also like to stay in the central to northcentral Arkansas area where she has a lot of family living, including her parents, Huston Ashley, a retired pastor, and Sharon Kay Ashley. 

“I think there is a need here; we're seeing the growth of a lot of rural clinics, and I think that's going to continue, so I would like to stay as local as I can,” she said. “I think in health care, the sky is the limit, and that's the reason this program is so big over here and they offer so much. One, they know the need that's out there, and two, it's one of those careers where you're never going to be stuck. There are so many different avenues to go with it, and I would like to explore a lot of those avenues.”

With two “fur babies” at home, Ashley said she has taken this semester to get acclimated to going back to school, but she is thinking about looking for some part-time work at a hospital.

“You just have to get your groove back and learn to discipline yourself all over again,” she said.

She said some of the younger students will come to her and ask for advice or help, so she feels like a mentor. “But they're also helping me, too. Maybe there's some things I don't know or I'm not as fast on, so it's a good relationship.

“We're all after one thing – we want to get through this and achieve. You know, age is just a number. It's all relative.”

She recommends anyone who thinks of college as a daunting task, to take it one day at a time, one test at a time, then the next, and so on. She said for her, the semester has flown by. “Here it is December, and it feels like I just started maybe a month ago!”

She said fear may hold some people back from going after their dreams, but if that's the case, “Get a team of people around you who are going to help you get what you need — resources, motivation, encouragement. I've always said to other people, 'Be to someone what you wish someone would give back to you.' What goes around comes around.”

Ashley said when fear comes knocking on her door, she instead grabs on to faith and turns her doubting to dreaming of what is possible. “I always say if I have fear, I'm going to switch it out for faith. That's just who I am,” she said. “You can't achieve anything unless you start it. Don't ever let fear stop you — don't let it be a roadblock. Let it motivate you, let it be a stepping stone. What's on the other side of that degree, you're going to be so proud of, you're going to do things you never dreamed of.”