Today we have an education story from Laura Miller Burress, who grew up in an Amish community in rural South Central Kentucky. As a little girl, while visiting her father in the hospital she developed an interest in nursing. Soon after her eighteenth birthday she left her Amish community and didn’t look back. While working at a factory she began taking classes at Western Kentucky University where she graduated with an Associate of Science Degree in Nursing in 2005, and with a Bachelors of Science in Nursing in 2007. She currently works as a Nurse Case Manager. She lives with her husband in Kentucky.
I was born and raised Old Order Amish. At age six, while I was in the middle of first grade, my family moved from Delaware to Kentucky. We were the second family to move to the new community, so there was no established school. I was homeschooled for the last half of first grade but by fall there was a one room school up and going.
I completed 8th grade when I was fourteen. School was usually fun and always fairly easy for me. I studied a little, and did well overall. I read every book I could get my hands on, which was a limited number in school and at home. I remember picking up the dictionary and reading it because there were no books available that I had not read.
After being out of school for just one year, I was asked to teach at the same one room school where I was a student only two years earlier. I was excited to begin teaching. Now, when I think back, I have some mixed feelings about it. I know that I did the best I knew how at the time. The studies were not a problem; I felt confident in my ability to teach. But, it never felt right to discipline the students, and I tried to avoid it.
I see my time in the schoolhouse as the time when I became a responsible adult. In addition to the teaching, I was responsible for keeping the schoolhouse and yard clean, and during winter months keeping a fire in a dilapidated old woodstove that sometimes smoked us out. I was asked to teach another year. I did teach another year, but when I was asked to teach a third year, I chose not to.
Soon after I turned 18, I left home. Later, that same summer, I married my husband, Wally, who drove a semi-truck. I traveled with him for most of the first year we were married. Sometime during that year I also got my driver’s license, and a month after turning nineteen I earned my High School Equivalency Diploma.
After about a year of riding up and down the highways I was tired of traveling and ready to get a job. I applied for a factory job through a temporary agency and the following day started orientation for my first job. Three months later I was hired full time. Working at the factory was a good experience, but long before working there, my dream was to go to college and become a nurse. When I was ten years old my dad was diagnosed with cancer. During his illness he had several lengthy hospitalizations and when we visited him, I always noticed the nurses. My father died of cancer when I was ten.
I wanted to be a nurse. I just wasn’t sure how to get there. Didn’t know where to start really, or what was involved.
While working at the factory I took the ACT test. Shortly thereafter I was accepted to Western Kentucky University. At the first appointment with my advisor, I could not bring myself to tell her I wanted to be a nurse. I never had a second choice, but I was not confident that I could complete nursing school, so I just told her I wanted to take some general education classes. I was still working full-time and would go to class after work two nights a week. I enrolled for 2 classes, English 101, and Human Nutrition. When I took these courses, I paid for them myself.
It’s hard to describe the emotions I had on my first night of class. I was scared, nervous, and excited all mixed together. Most of the time was spent going over the syllabus, which was good for me, because I had never heard of a syllabus.
I took evening classes for 2 semesters, and then the following summer, there were lots of changes within the factory including some jobs going to Mexico. There was a voluntary lay-off; so I took a small severance pay, unemployment benefits and enrolled in full-time classes. I qualified for tuition reimbursement that was paid for by the , which was based on making a passing grade. This program paid for most of my tuition for 2 of the 3 years that I was enrolled full-time in the ADN program. I paid for the books. I still had to fill out the FASFA. I did not qualify for any grants, but took out loans for my final year in the ADN. One of my nursing instructors recommended me for a $500 nursing scholarship, and I got it.
The following year I was accepted into WKU’s Associate of Science in nursing program. I never skipped class. The assignments seemed endless. Almost everything was new, and I was like a sponge soaking it all up. There were moments when I thought I was in over my head and wouldn’t make it, but it never occurred to me to give up. Once, at the very beginning of a psychology class, the instructor asked that we write down the names of the seven dwarves. Luckily we were not graded on this. It was an exercise to see how many people remembered all the names correctly. I didn’t know any of the dwarves names because I had never watched Snow White. Similar things happened from time to time, and I had feelings of inadequacy. I know now that I may never fully catch up, on things like movies and music genres. Still, I am a productive adult and competent nurse. I graduated with Distinction in May 2005, seven years to the date that I had left the Amish.
Within a few months I passed the State Board exam and began working as a Registered Nurse at the hospital where my dad had his surgeries — I worked on the same floor and rooms where I visited him as a little girl. I met a few nurses who remembered him. While working there, I got a PRN job offer at the office of three Orthopedic Surgeons. On days I was not at the hospital I would work at the office. Right after graduating, I also enrolled in classes for the post RN -BSN program at WKU. I had completed some hours towards this while in the ADN program. Later that year, I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelors of Science in Nursing.
By summer of 2007, I was ready for a change from the hospital and took a full-time position at the Orthopedic Office.
In 2008 I applied and was accepted to a graduate program in the nurse practitioner track at WKU. I did 3 semesters part-time, but my heart wasn’t in it so I decided to take a break from school. I may eventually go back, but for now I am content. Two years ago I am began working as a Nurse Case Manager. I coordinate medical care for people who are injured at work. I have a home office, and travel throughout Kentucky and Tennessee to meet injured workers. I recently studied for and passed the Commission for Certified Case Managers exam.
As is the experience with most who leave the Amish, the relationship with my family was strained in the beginning. Over the years though, this has greatly improved. I enjoy visiting and spending time with them as often as I can. My husband and I celebrated our fourteenth anniversary this year. I am so grateful that he believed in me, and my dream to be a nurse, before I believed in myself. We live on a mini-farm with 2 horses, 1 very old pet cow, 2 dogs and 2 barn cats. We enjoy traveling. And I still enjoy reading.
Many thanks to Emma, William, and Naomi for all your efforts in getting ADSFUND going and Thank You Saloma for inviting me to share my story.