Nurse practitioner brings passion, experience to online classroom

2019 Clinical Practice Teaching Award winner is also alumna

Sheryl Mitchell still remembers the advice from her graduate school mentor while she was earning her nursing and nurse practitioner degrees from the University of South Carolina.  

“I remember sitting in Dr. Stephanie Burgess’ class — she was so passionate about her work, not only here in the College of Nursing but her work in the nursing profession. I remember her saying, ‘If you are not at the table, you are on the menu,’ ” Mitchell says. “She kept saying you have to participate and you have to be at the table. That’s what has kept me going over the years. I’ve taken that advice, and I’ve given that advice to others in the profession.”

That includes the students Mitchell now teaches in the College of Nursing, where she serves as a clinical assistant professor and director of the family nurse practitioner program.

Mitchell grew up in the small town of Paxville, South Carolina, and attended USC Sumter before transferring to the Columbia campus, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology. She later completed what was then called the non-BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice degree in the university’s College of Nursing, before starting her career at the William Jennings Bryan Dorn Veterans Medical Center as a registered nurse. She returned to the university in 2014 as a full-time clinical assistant professor.

“My passion is teaching nurse practitioner students and empowering them to become the best nurse practitioners and advocates that they can be,” she writes in her philosophy of teaching statement.

As a teacher in the online family nurse practitioner program, she says her job is “to help prepare the next generation to go out into the profession and take care of patients. And, for me, to keep my professional skills sharp as I have to keep up with the latest treatments so I can prepare my students for when they graduate.

That includes making sure that nurse practitioner students understand the role for which they are being prepared since it requires advanced skillsets. And it means Mitchell must recognize that each student is coming from a different background, with some new BSN graduates coming right into the family nurse practitioner graduate program and others who have worked as nurses for many years before returning to school.

Family nurse practitioners have a minimum of a master’s degree and are educated to provide primary care. And, because the students are trained to work in primary care, a large part of their role involves prevention and health education. Nurse practitioners are in high demand, particularly in primary care settings, where there aren’t always enough physicians to handle the patient load. Nearly 250 students are enrolled in South Carolina’s program.

For Mitchell, a good day is when she is able to see those students pull together all of the information she has presented in an online class and understand the next steps to take with a little additional help from the professor.

“When I can say, ‘This is what we discussed in class, let me see if I can clean it up just a little bit for you. ’ It’s almost like seeing a lightbulb going off, but because it’s all online, I don’t see that Aha! moment like you would in a classroom. But then you’ll get an email back saying, ‘Oh, I got it now.’ That’s the lightbulb-going-off moment.”

She has had a lot of those moments as an online teacher. According to her nomination for the Clinical Practice Teaching Award from Dean Jeannette Andrews, Mitchell has incorporated innovative teaching methods within her courses, and provided advisement and career counseling to students. She also recently finished her term as president of the South Carolina Nurses Association, and will be inducted as a fellow in the American Association of Nurse Practitioners this summer.

“I, as dean, often hear from students in this program regarding Dr. Mitchell’s coaching and mentoring, not only during their program, but in the months/years post-graduation,” Andrews says. “Being a seasoned clinician with an extensive network, she is a tremendous asset to our students, program and nurse practitioner workforce in our region.”

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