Jerrica Hightower was at a crossroads after she graduated high school in 2007. College was an option, but after two days of classes during a fall semester, she withdrew and enlisted in the United States Army, where she started working as a radiology specialist.
During basic training, she realized the hardest part to overcome was the mental aspect and not the physical. Fifteen years later, those lessons she learned in the Army helped her in earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Augusta University’s College of Nursing.
“Being older than most of the people in my class, I have experienced life and employment outside of school. My previous work experience has helped expose me to different aspects of health care and what ultimately led me to nursing,” Hightower said.
“I understand that in order in become a nurse that I must make it through the schooling first. I also tried to find a healthy balance between being successful in school while still fulfilling my responsibilities outside of the classroom, which I had to juggle while I was in the military also.
“My classes weren’t just about checking off boxes to get to graduation. I knew I needed the knowledge, skills and experience along the way to help make me the best nurse I could be.”
Hightower slowly worked toward her associate’s degree, taking online classes from 2009-11 while she was deployed in Afghanistan and while stationed in North Carolina.
The Army gave her a way to serve her country, see the world and earn education benefits, but she admits she had “no idea” what she was getting herself in to.
“I did not know what the military was like and had no one close to our family to ask. Less than three months after I finished my job training, I was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan,” Hightower said. “I worked at the largest military hospital in a deployed setting, Craig Joint Theater Hospital. I was caught off guard by what war and the impacts of it were as soon as I walked through the hospital doors. I’m so thankful for the other radiology techs who stepped up and showed me how to survive.”
She learned how to communicate and care for patients, and in doing so discovered her passion was in helping others. Hightower was willing to do what it took to learn the skills to make that happen.
“I do love to help others, but I also don’t mind the ‘gross’ things that come with working in health care,” she said. “During my time in the military, I was exposed to war-related injuries and death, but I didn’t want that to deter me from the good that comes in health care. I am fascinated with the human body and love to learn about peoples’ injuries, diseases, etc. The first time I saw a baby delivered, I could not stop smiling and was so thankful the mother allowed me that opportunity. I understand I will never know everything, and I look forward to ongoing learning.”
Her military background helped in the classroom, whether in person or online, and it helped her push forward.
“During the worst times, I reminded myself of how many people had made it through before me and there was no reason that I couldn’t make it through, too. I also learned that surrounding yourself with people going through the same experience helped because we made it through the hard parts together and celebrated victories together,” Hightower said. “Completing classes online was difficult because I didn’t have those people around for motivation. I used both methods during both of my deployments too.
“In the military, we always joke that we have to ‘embrace the suck.’ You realize that you are currently in a tough position or time, but you just have to make it through and things will be better.”
Hightower was married in 2012 and had three children when she was in the military. She was pregnant with her fourth when she got out, but still felt called to work in the medical field. She diligently worked on her classes because she knew she needed that education to allow her to get a job wherever she and her husband, who is still in active duty, would end up.
She knows having a BSN opens up many opportunities for employment down the road, even if they don’t fall within a clinic or hospital. She would ultimately love to go back to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany where she worked as a radiology technician.
“That is where I finished out my time in the military and worked in radiology and would love to make it full circle.”
Hightower knows her military background will pay off once she starts working as a nurse full time.
“I think my previous employment will be beneficial when I start working. I have the patient care experience, which has helped me to connect and understand the patient more,” she said. “As a health care provider, I think having a good bedside manner is extremely important and I already have that experience. I also have a good work ethic. The military instilled in me to be a dependable and responsible employee.”
Hightower knows she carries with her all of the love and support of those she’s worked with in the past as well as family and friends. She’s especially grateful for her husband, “who has supported our family of six financially since I got out of the military and has supported me in my dream of becoming a nurse. He also was always a willing participant to help me study or practice my skills.”
Hightower is also thankful for her mom, who moved from Illinois to help with her four children during the school year.
“This helped relieve so much stress since I have someone to help transport the kids or watch them when they need to stay home sick, or I am gone for hours at school or clinical,” she said.
She’s also thankful for her children, who have been her biggest cheerleaders. “I am excited to have more time for them,” she said.
She is grateful for her classmates as well.
“I would not have survived nursing school without my clinical group — especially Shekinah Bartido. We made it through all of our tests, pharmacology, clinicals and group projects with the support of each other.
“Their support and friendship meant so much to me and I hope it will continue once we graduate and we can celebrate our victories as baby nurses together. I want to say thank you to all the professors who have helped us on our journey to become nurses. Dr. Diane Robillard, thank you for all your kind words. Your positivity and kind messages always helped us.”
Augusta University’s Spring 2022 Commencement ceremonies will be held Thursday, May 12 and Friday, May 13. Thursday’s ceremony will honor graduate students, and Friday’s ceremonies will honor undergraduate students. Watch the events via livestream.