All it took was four years, countless hours of research, a scary trip behind bars in a county jail, a bunch of driving, and some help from MSNBC’s Lockup, but Kari Hickey did something Friday that no one’s ever done before.

Make that Dr. Kari Hickey.

Hickey became the first student to complete her Ph.D. at the Mennonite College of Nursing, successfully defending her dissertation Friday at Edwards Hall. It was a historic moment for the 94-year-old nursing college, which announced the new doctoral program in 2008 to better care for underserved populations and meet a statewide need for more nurses who are prepared as faculty and researchers.

For Hickey, finishing her Ph.D. was a major personal accomplishment—and one she can show her three daughters as proof that “Mom can be Mom” and also a talented educator and researcher.

“This is more than a title,” Hickey told STATEside.

Kari Hickey at the defense

Mennonite College of Nursing Ph.D. candidate Kari Hickey talks to her dissertation committee during her defense Friday, March 1, 2013.

Hickey is an instructor at Northern Illinois University’s (NIU) School of Nursing and Health Studies in DeKalb. She had already earned her master’s at NIU after her youngest daughter went off to kindergarten and was looking to dive even deeper into her work and teaching. She chose Illinois State University’s doctoral program over one in Chicago partly because its focus on vulnerable populations aligned with her professional background in community health.

Enrolling in fall 2009, Hickey spent the first two and a half years driving from DeKalb to Normal every Friday. Like any degree, it took a lot of hard work and a big time commitment—plus full support from her husband, Pat, who also works at NIU, and their daughters. (Pat was in the audience for Friday’s dissertation defense, fielding text messages from their girls eager to know how it was going.)

“It’s something you can’t do if you really, really don’t want to do it,” Hickey said.

Going behind bars

Hickey’s dissertation explored gambling and the perceived health of jail inmates. There is a dearth of research on jails, inmates, and health, Hickey says, and she was already familiar with the underserved population from regularly taking her NIU undergraduate students on jail tours. And the research interest of her dissertation committee chair, Cindy Kerber, Ph.D. ’01, is older adults with gambling problems and depression.

“I knew I wanted to do something meaningful,” Hickey said.

Her dissertation required visiting a county jail in Illinois and asking inmates to fill out surveys that, when analyzed, would reveal how gambling problems, perceived health, and social function can intersect. It’s an important question as counties struggle with the high cost of incarcerating inmates awaiting trial, many who struggle with undiagnosed mental health issues that inevitably lead to high recidivism.

Her jail visit was scary, Hickey said, and interestingly many inmates were playing cards when she entered their housing units. Her prep work even involved watching the MSNBC prison documentary series Lockup.

Her research, which surveyed 184 inmates between 18–49 years old, raises some interesting questions and leads directly to her real goal: the identification of interventions to help vulnerable and underserved populations. What if, for example, a jail could screen inmates (particularly younger ones) when they first arrive for problem gambling or pathological gambling traits, then provide them additional resources?

Her dissertation work has already been accepted for publication in Nursing Forum and she will present results at the 2013 Midwest Nursing Research Society conference in Chicago.

The Mennonite College of Nursing graduated its first class of nurses in 1922. College Dean Janet Wessel Krejci noted the historic significance of Hickey’s Ph.D., as well as her college’s key role in meeting the Institute of Medicine’s call for doubling the number of nurses with doctorates by 2020.

Mennonite now has 21 remaining Ph.D. students.

“We know this is the first of many nurse leaders who will receive their Ph.D. degree at Illinois State, and will help to change the future. The deep values of Mennonite College of Nursing at Illinois State live on in our graduates and future leaders,” Krejci said. “We are very proud of Dr. Hickey and so fortunate we have the stellar faculty here at MCN to help mentor these future nurse leaders. Dr. Kerber, her chair, is to be applauded for her commitment and expertise in mentoring Dr. Hickey.”

For Hickey, her Ph.D. will make her a tenure-track faculty member at NIU and allow her to teach graduate students. It also opens the door for her to teaching nursing research and theory—subjects that she dreaded as an undergrad but has now grown to love.

Ryan Denham can be reached at


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