Diabetes educator Cynthia Nickerson RN, CMC, CDE is one of 12 students in the nation’s first-ever master’s class program for diabetes education at Columbia University. She shares her student experiences thus far and her expectations for future professional growth.

By: John Parkinson, Clinical Content Coordinator, DiabetesCare.net 
A few years ago, Cynthia Nickerson believed she would advance her career by going back to school and getting her nurse practitioner (NP) degree in order to be more effective in diabetes education. It was something that had been on her list of professional things to do and it was just a matter of finding the right timing and working out the logistics associated with it. 

Over the years she had been happily employed as the diabetes educator, case manager, and program manager at Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau, Alaska. Eventually, she decided not to pursue an NP degree because it would take her from her desired focus: diabetes patient care. 
As luck would have it, one day about a year ago she happened to come across a small article in a medical journal about the master’s in diabetes education program at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City. Knowing diabetes education was her calling, she thought this was exactly what she was looking for, so she decided to apply.

Columbia is offering the first master’s program in diabetes education in the U.S. The emphasis of this unique program is to take experienced educators in the field, and have them work individually and in small groups to challenge them in areas of study from the physiology of diabetes to transformative learning. In this way, it mirrors other graduate level programs.

In order to graduate, students must take 36 credits and complete a Masters Integrative Project. The program is done online and through modern means of communication (e-mail, teleconferencing) so Nickerson is able to participate.   

After obtaining transcripts for her undergraduate work, writing an introductory letter as to why she wanted to be in the program, and going through an interview with Program Coordinator Jane Dickinson, RN, PhD, CDE, Nickerson was successful in her efforts and became one of 12 diabetes educators across the U.S. who were accepted into the program. 

Nickerson began this past September and acknowledges finding the right balance between her work and school life has been challenging, especially with a full patient case load during the day.   

DiabetesCare.net spoke with Nickerson about her experience of getting into the program, a glimpse of the program’s curriculum, and her hopes upon graduation.

DiabetesCare.net: Can you provide an overview of your education/training as well as your professional background?

Nickerson: I have a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and an Associate’s Degree from the College of Southern Maryland. I have been a diabetes educator for 12 years and a CDE since 2002. I am case manager-certified as well.

DiabetesCare.net: Where did you first hear about the program and why the decision to go ahead and get your master’s in diabetes education?
Nickerson: I had read about the program in an endocrinology newspaper. It was just this short  blurb about a year ago. In reading it, I thought, ‘this will be great because the focus is diabetes specific. I had been thinking about going back and becoming a nurse practitioner for close to five years but decided not to go that route because it really didn’t focus on diabetes and that is where my interest lies.

DiabetesCare.net: Why the decision to pursue this master’s degree?

Plain and simple, I want to be a better diabetes educator and be better at what I do. My goal is to become a more effective educator to help my patients improve their diabetes.  

I don’t plan to leave my job; I love the hospital where I am at and I absolutely see this degree as an opportunity to strengthen the diabetes education program here at the hospital. Already, the classes have dealt with many topics that I can relate to in my clinical practice.

For example, we had just been researching sleep apnea in diabetes  when I had a patient in my office a few days later who suffered tremendously from sleep apnea and bad blood sugar numbers. I had seen people with sleep apnea before, but now that I had this information, I truly understood what processes were happening in the body and how making specific changes would improve my patient`s blood glucose levels. At a one month follow-up, the patient’s blood glucose and subsequent A1c had already decreased substantially. It was really exciting to apply this knowledge so closely to learning about it in the program.

DiabetesCare.net: What was the criteria for getting accepted into the program?

Nickerson: I compiled my undergrad transcripts and wrote a formal introductory letter explaining why I wanted to participate in the program. I had to interview with Jane Dickinson (program coordinator), and I was accepted into the program last March.

DiabetesCare.net: Can you provide an overview of what the class work load is like?

Nickerson: Everyone in the program is taking two classes, which equals six credits. It is challenging working full-time, going to school, and balancing family life (she laughs). They recommend we spent at least two hours a day on school. At times it can be stressful and feel overwhelming, but it has certainly taught me to strengthen my time management skills. There is a lot of interesting reading. I’m hoping to get ahead on my required readings during the winter break.

DiabetesCare.net: Can you provide an example of what you are doing for your classes?

Nickerson: My two classes right now are the  “Pathophysiology of Diabetes” and “Determinants of Health Behavior". One of the first things we did for our pathophysiology class was to do a group powerpoint presentation from a selected list of topics. I live the furthest west and other group members are on eastern or central time. We discovered it can be challenging to communicate via e-mails, so we did our own preliminary research first and then came together to discuss the project as a group. We spent approximately three hours teleconferencing together before submitting the final project.

The second class, "Determinants of Behavior Change", was a new world for me. It was like learning a different language; I thought I understood the basics of behavior change, but when I started doing the required readings and discussions, it became apparent how little I knew! Working through the various models really opened my eyes to new and different theories and how to apply them.

We are expected to step up our game in this program, but because it is diabetes, I love it! By the time I graduate in three years, I’m going to be a very well-educated, and effective diabetes educator.

DiabetesCare.net: While you are in your first semester, have you begun to think about your Masters Integrative Project?

Nickerson: I’ve not decided yet, but with all the new information and topics we’re learning about, I know I will become engrossed in a theory or topic. I just completed a research project on Necrobiosis Lipoidica Diabeticorum (NLD), which is a rash that occurs typically on the lowers legs of women. I was vaguely familiar with it before, but now when I see someone with this condition, I will know how the condition runs it course and how to answer patients’ questions about it in addition to the treatment. I will develop an arsenal of knowledge on topics as they relate to patients and diabetes. All of our presentations go into our student portfolios.

DiabetesCare.net: How does it feel to be one of the first 12 people who are in the program and what’s it like to be working with fellow educators?

Nickerson: It is an absolute honor to be one of 12 across the country in the program. I have tremendous respect for my classmates.They are all already well-educated and driven to excel. They are  a wealth of  knowledge and shared experiences. We post on our website, comment on each others’ work and experiences--that’s how we learn from one another.  

DiabetesCare.net: What do you hope to do post-graduation, and why is this program important to diabetes educators overall?

  Whether it’s diabetes education, awareness and prevention, or policy-making and legislation, it all boils down to the most important aspect of all–people living with the disease. My hope is this program will spotlight the role of educators, strengthen their role in healthcare and draw attention to the vital part they play in diabetes.

(DiabetesCare.net is going to interview Columbia`s Dickinson in the coming weeks and will have an in-depth look at the program in a future story.)