It’s been three months since Tracey Puig-Baker, PhD, finished her doctorate program, completing a seven-year journey.
Every day since reaching her goal, she has thought about what she has accomplished. She has wanted to be a nurse since she was 6 years old, and remembers always loving the idea of helping people, being able to comfort them and lend a hand whenever needed.
Puig-Baker enlisted in the United States Navy as a way of earning money to eventually go to college for nursing. She began as a hospital corpsman and acquired plenty of skills, such as how to perform IVs in pediatric acute care and take blood pressure, that would help her become an effective nurse as well as help her become the educator she is today.
“It was interesting that I was able to do all the skills in the U.S. Navy that I was able to do without a formal nursing education as a registered nurse,” said Puig-Baker, who will participate in commencement on Dec. 17. “I learned how to do my assessments, vital signs, and administer medication — all those things and to be able recognize when there were issues going on with the patients. I also drove ambulances and did a lot of pre-hospital care as well working in the emergency rooms. Everything I learned in the military provided me with a great wealth of knowledge before attending nursing school.
“Now that I’m in education, I can relate back to some of those experiences, and it’s helped me especially working in the Bachelor of Science of Nursing program, to be able to teach the students from some of the experiences that I had while in the military.”
Puig-Baker moved back to Georgia in 2003 and was in the Army Reserves as a nurse corps officer. During various deployments she was able to finish her bachelor’s and master’s degrees online. In 2011, she began working at Augusta University Medical Center and then became an instructor in the College in Nursing in 2015.
Both of her parents did not have the opportunity to attend college and were proud of her accomplishments and hard work. When she graduated with her first degree in 2003 — an associate’s degree in nursing — her mother was especially proud.
“She didn’t realize that I was actually a registered nurse. She thought I was along the lines of a certified nurse’s aide or something like that,” Puig-Baker said. “She didn’t realize I was attending a registered nurse program until she came to my graduation, she was very proud of me for what I’ve accomplished despite working and taking care of two small children.”
Unfortunately, her mother had developed multiple myeloma and passed away three months after she finished her MSN and started working at Augusta University Health as a bariatric coordinator in 2011.
At the time of her hiring at CON, one caveat was she had to begin working toward her PhD. Puig-Baker said there were plenty of bumps in the road but “it all worked out.” She focused her efforts on nursing and research, saying she’s always been interested in research in obesity and depression and the correlation between the two and bariatric surgery outcomes.
She was in the middle of her PhD program when her father was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away in 2018. She took time off from the PhD program but credits the faculty around her for supporting her through it and helping her stay on track to finish her program.
“I don’t think I would have ever made it, because there were many times I wanted just to say ‘I’m done. I can’t do this,’” Puig-Baker said. “I was working full-time, taking care of three children. It was really tough some days.”
Now that Puig-Baker has had some time to think about all that she has overcome and accomplished, she’s been able to process and appreciate the long journey. When students ask her about her trek, she explains her determination, which she hopes encourages all of them to push forward despite any obstacles they might encounter.
“This isn’t something that I thought of about in the beginning, but when you get to this point, and you if this is something you want to do, you’ve got to be able to have the drive and the perseverance to be able to make it,” she said. “And then once you get through it, it’s like ‘I can’t believe I’ve made it through all of this.’ There were times that I would spend a week or two nonstop working on the dissertation and going through it and editing it.
“But the thing what kept me going was how far I had already come. I knew that I could not quit, and I knew that I was not going to do that. I think part of what drove me the most is having somebody else say ‘Well, you can stop here if you want if it’s that stressful.’ I think that lit a fire under me more than anything because I wanted to prove them wrong. I’ve never done anything easy, especially going through school with three kids, taking care of my dad and working full-time, if I can do this, then anybody can do this.”
Learn more about commencement at Augusta University.