Interview with Dr. Debbie J. Ciesielka - Coordinator of Clarion University and Edinboro University’s Joint Online Family Nurse Practitioner Program

About Debbie Ciesielka, CRNP, D.Ed.: Dr. Ciesielka is the Coordinator of Clarion University and Edinboro University’s online Family Nurse Practitioner program. She has over 30 years’ experience as an adult nurse practitioner, most of which has been at an inner city clinic. Dr. Ciesielka joined Clarion University in 1998, and took over the role of Coordinator in 2007. In addition to her position as Coordinator, she continues to teach pathophysiology and a clinical decision making course in the online program, and practices as a nurse practitioner. She is a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her BS in natural sciences, BSN, and Doctor of Education in leadership and administration. Dr. Ciesielka earned her MSN from the University of Pittsburgh with a concentration in adult primary health care nursing.

Interview Questions

[OnlineFNPPrograms.com] Could you please provide a brief overview of Clarion University and Edinboro University’s online Family Nurse Practitioner program, and how it is structured?

[Dr. Ciesielka] The Family Nurse Practitioner Concentration was first offered by Clarion and Slippery Rock Universities in 1995, the result of several years of discussion and recommendations by a task force of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).

Clarion is one of 14 universities that are part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). When I came on board, the MSN Program was a collaborative of two PASSHE schools–Clarion University and Slippery Rock University. A sister institution, Edinboro, joined the consortium in 2001 and Slippery Rock eventually opted to leave in 2009 to focus on undergraduate education. The joint MSN-FNP program was created to support state initiatives to develop regional graduate programs to meet primary health care needs of Pennsylvania, in particular the rural health needs of the counties surrounding the two institutions. When Edinboro joined the consortium in 2001, the geographic reach expanded. In addition, a nurse educator concentration was added but, sadly, was plagued with low enrollment from the very beginning. We admitted our last class to that concentration in fall 2013. We now focus on what we do best, which is preparing family nurse practitioners.

From the very beginning the FNP program used distance technology in order to make education accessible to students throughout rural western Pennsylvania. The curriculum, while adhering to The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) guidelines and American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) master’s education standards, was designed with this in mind. With the addition of Edinboro, located in the northern reaches of the state, the use of distance technology became even more important. The student body could now claim a geographic area encompassing 15 counties stretching from Pittsburgh and surroundings to the south, the Ohio border to the west, the New York border to the north, and Clearfield County to the east. Initially, however, courses were delivered through interactive videoconferencing. This technology was less than perfect. Just imagine telling a joke and waiting for the students at the distant site to laugh due to the time delay! When online learning management systems became more readily available, the transition to completely online made more sense. Since fall 2007, all didactic courses have been taught online.

Where we differ from other online programs is our goal that graduates will come from and give back to the rural and underserved communities in our region. Currently, all of our faculty live near our campus locations in the Edinboro/Erie area, Oil City, Clarion, or Pittsburgh. We maintain a physical presence with our students through a mandatory on campus orientation, on campus skill labs for advanced health assessment and minor office procedures, and clinical site visits at least once for each clinical practicum course. Online technology includes systems with videoconferencing capabilities. Our only requirement is that students have practicum experiences within a 2 hours’ drive of our campus locations. We’ve had students living outside of our region who were willing to drive the distance to meet this requirement. As a joint program, our graduates have an option to attend commencement at either university and don’t necessarily choose one that’s closest to where they live. Much depends on the bonds they’ve developed with individual faculty. However, all graduates do receive a diploma that is unique to the program, since both universities are listed as conferring the degree.

[OnlineFNPPrograms.com] Clarion University and Edinboro University’s online FNP program currently offers both BSN to MSN and post-MSN options. What is the difference between the BSN to MSN and post-MSN programs, in terms of required units, courses, and general program structure?

[Dr. Ciesielka] Content is organized around core graduate nursing courses and family nurse practitioner specialty courses. BSN to MSN students take all core courses and FNP specialty courses. Core courses account for 21 credits and include pathophysiology, pharmacology, health promotion, nursing theory, nursing research, public policy, and a research project/thesis. FNP specialty courses include a role seminar, population-based theory courses with co-requisite clinical practicum experiences, and the final internship. FNP specialty courses account for an additional 24 credits. Most students attend part-time and complete the program in three years and one summer. With part-time study, core courses are completed in the first year; clinical courses begin year two. Students who attend full-time take core and specialty courses simultaneously, thus decreasing program completion by one year. Post-Master’s Family Nurse Practitioner students take a minimum of 24 credits that include all FNP specialty courses and may or may not include core courses in pathophysiology, pharmacology, and health promotion, based on a gap analysis.

[OnlineFNPPrograms.com] Can you please explain how Clarion University and Edinboro University’s online FNP program integrates clinical placements into its curriculum? Does the program match students to their preceptors and clinical sites, or does it approve the clinical sites and preceptors that students find themselves?

[Dr. Ciesielka] The MSN Program is very fortunate to have a list of over 300 providers who have served as preceptors for our students in the past. Preceptors include nurse practitioners, physicians, physician assistants and certified nurse midwives. Students have access to a database where lists of preceptors and clinical sites are housed. Students are expected to arrange their own clinical practicum experiences. This is for two reasons: 1) they know their schedules best and 2) they are the best judges of their learning styles. We do tell students that clinical experiences at their workplace are permitted only if in a different department. Students are always welcome to contact and recommend other preceptors to add to our growing list. The preceptor and student fill out and sign a request form that is reviewed by the clinical instructor and Program Coordinator for approval. Affiliation agreements with clinical agencies are handled through our purchasing department and signed off by university officials.

[OnlineFNPPrograms.com] Clinical placements are a major component of FNP programs and a considerable time commitment. How do you recommend students balance their clinical hours requirements with their other responsibilities outside of school, such as a job or personal commitments?

[Dr. Ciesielka] Clinical hours are dispersed throughout the curriculum–60 hours for advanced health assessment, 90 hours for each of the three population-based clinical decision making courses, and 270 hours for internship. This allows for fewer hours per week, which is usually doable, even when working full-time. We also strongly encourage part-time study so that time can be spent in practice rather than in completing coursework. The internship, of course, is a little more challenging as it occurs in the summer and over 13 weeks rather than the usual 15. Surprisingly, the majority of our students are able to accomplish this. The few students who don’t complete their hours within this time period, take an incomplete grade and finish in the next semester without incurring additional costs.

[OnlineFNPPrograms.com] What are some of the pros and cons of attending a graduate nursing program online? What support structures are in place within Clarion University and Edinboro University’s online FNP program to help students not fall behind? What are the advantages of an online program as opposed to an on-campus program and vice versa?

[Dr. Ciesielka] Online is not for everybody. Students who shy away from computers or have weaknesses in organization and time management will struggle. Online learners need to be very self-directed and confident in their use of technology. We interview all program applicants and try to gauge their potential for success in an online program as part of the selection process. Many students who never took an online course before become champions of this type of learning when they realize the advantages of not having to juggle work and class schedules. Goals they never thought they’d be able to meet are suddenly reachable. We have many supports in place such as an online writing center, online library, anonymous discussion board to air concerns, and faculty who make themselves available by email or even personal cell phone.

[OnlineFNPPrograms.com] For registered nurses who are interested in Clarion University and Edinboro University’s online FNP program, what advice do you have for them regarding how they can submit a competitive application?

[Dr. Ciesielka] Be a nurse first. We have 2,000 hours of clinical practice as a registered nurse as a minimum admission requirement. In truth, we rarely accept applicants with so little experience. Broaden your clinical experiences. A variety of settings, levels of acuity, and patient populations strengthen the foundation to become an FNP. Be involved. We look at your resume for evidence of volunteerism, serving on workplace committees, and membership in professional organizations. Worry less about the undergraduate GPA. We look for trends—those “C” or even “D” grades as an 18-year-old freshman can be offset by grades that improved over time.

[OnlineFNPPrograms.com] What makes Clarion University and Edinboro University’s online FNP program unique, and a particularly strong degree option for RNs who want to advance their career and become FNPs?

[Dr. Ciesielka] The Clarion and Edinboro Universities’ online FNP program offers an educational option that is accessible, affordable, and recognized for quality. We have prepared graduates who have gone on to earn PhDs and DNPs, opened up independent practices as FNPs, and served their communities in Federally Qualified Health Centers, free clinics, schools, physician offices, emergency rooms, urgent care centers, and every other setting imaginable. We remain true to our mission of preparing graduates who give back to the communities where they live, particularly communities with unmet health care needs.

[OnlineFNPPrograms.com] Does Clarion University and Edinboro University’s online FNP program currently accept students from all 50 states?

[Dr. Ciesielka] No. As it now stands, states dictate whether or not a distance education program is required to obtain authorization to operate in their state. Having a physical presence in a state is typically the requirement for authorization; however, not all states require such authorizations. We teach online but maintain a physical presence (in the form of skill labs and practicums) only in Pennsylvania. In other words, we are not authorized to have clinical experiences/internships in any state other than Pennsylvania.

With this restriction, the majority of our students come from western Pennsylvania, northeastern Ohio, and southwestern New York. That’s not to say we’ve never had anyone from a distant state. For example, I have a currently enrolled student who lived in Colorado at the start of the program and now lives in Virginia. She has family in western Pennsylvania and will be staying with them when she does her clinical hours.

Our online FNP program is currently approved to accept applicants from the following states (includes exempt and no authorization required states based on current activities for our online programs):

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Iowa
  • Idaho
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • North Carolina
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • New York
  • Florida
  • Ohio
  • Kansas
  • Maryland

In addition to the above states, Clarion University, which is the administrative site for the joint Clarion and Edinboro Universities’ MSN Program, has also applied for approval from:

  • District of Columbia
  • Illinois
  • Massachusetts
  • Maine
  • Nebraska
  • Wyoming
  • North Dakota

Students who are interested in applying to the online FNP program and want to know if they are eligible for admission should contact clariononline@clarion.edu for the most up to date information.

Thank you Dr. Ciesielka for your time and insight into Clarion University’s online Family Nurse Practitioner program.


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About the Author: Kaitlin Louie is the Managing Editor of OnlineFNPPrograms.com, and creates informational content that aims to assist students in making informed decisions about graduate programs. She earned her BA & MA in English from Stanford University.