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Brittany Ziller leans over patient simulator

Illinois State student Brittany Ziller in the Nursing Simulation Lab.

Back to school: Student goes the distance to earn nursing degree

Her day starts at 5 a.m. and ends…?

“It depends,” said Brittany Ziller, smiling.

The mother of two commutes 90 miles a day to Illinois State University’s campus. In May she’ll graduate with a bachelor’s in nursing, a dream she’s had since she was a teen and grossed out her family with a dinner table discussion of the digestive system.

By 16, she was a certified nursing assistant, and by 18, was married to her high school sweetheart, Scott Ziller. He joined the military and they moved to California and became parents of two by the time they were 22.

“I’m more proud of her than any other student because of all the sacrifices she makes.” —Brad Dorng

When Scott got out of the service, he enrolled at Illinois State as a nontraditional student on the GI Bill, earning his degree in physical education in 2014. Brittany spent those four years working on her associate’s part-time and was ready to start Mennonite College of Nursing. Scott landed a hard-to-get teaching job in Wilmington so they moved closer to his school, pushing her farther from hers.

But that didn’t bother her. What she was more afraid of was starting nursing school at 29. She was careful not to mention her age until one of her peers, hearing her talk about her boys, Ayden, 12, and Ethan, 9, finally asked: How old are you?

That was Brad Dorng, who affectionately calls her “mom.”

Brittany Ziller and her family on the beach

Illinois State nursing student Brittany Ziller with her husband, Scott, and children on the Oregon coast.

“She fit into the group so well. I always call her mom because she’s kind of like the mom of the group. When anyone is stressed, she comforts them,” he said. “I’m more proud of her than any other student because of all the sacrifices she makes. She always puts others before herself.”

She does, and that creates some stress. When it became too much, she reached out to long-time nursing instructor Lynn Kennell.

“I didn’t feel anything got my full attention—not my family, not my husband, not my friends, not school, not even me,” she said.

Kennell assured her she was doing more than enough.

“Brittany is truly a gift to our college and to nursing. The distance she commutes with a family is beyond my imagination,” she said. “She needed to know she was doing things very, very well. I know she’s going to be an exceptional nurse.”

Ziller needed to hear that.

Brittany Ziller ducks under doorway

The 5-foot-3 Ziller ducks under a doorway in an old English farmhouse during her Transcultural Nursing trip.

“It was an emotional check for me, the validation I needed. Not everything had to have all of me all the time.”

Not only has the nursing student handled the intensity of classes and clinicals, she traveled to the University of Brighton in England last May, shadowing midwives as part of the Transcultural Nursing Program. Becoming a midwife has been a goal since she was old enough to ask her mother for a pregnant Barbie.

The first time Ziller visited Mennonite, she saw a presentation on the transcultural program. She was hooked. The minute she got home, she started talking to Scott and he said they’d make it happen. They did, along with the help of the Mennonite College of Nursing Endowed Transcultural Nursing Fund, created by professors Karrie Ingalsbe and Kennell as part of the University’s first comprehensive campaign in 2002. The Adkisson-Bourne Endowed Scholarship also eased their tuition worries. Ziller had the opportunity to meet donors Billy Adkisson and his wife, Ellen Bourne.

“That was a thrill,” she said.

Ziller credits her family with helping her push through school. Leaving her boys the past two years was the hardest part.

“I really do have great kids,” she said, tearing up. “I get home and they say, ‘How was your day mom?’”

And that’s when her day really begins.

Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.

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