THE SEED WITHIN
THE NURSING ASSIGNMENT
The first assignment in her Post University master’s degree program inspired Ash Lee Hicks – a practicing nurse with over a decade of experience – to tackle a big community health issue.
Now, she is impacting lives across the state of Arkansas, heading toward her ultimate career goal of teaching the nurses of tomorrow, and showing her four children how education is the tool to overcome anything.
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The silence is broken by the sound of an overhead door, followed by a black sedan heading in reverse out of the garage. Ash Lee Hicks is on the move – for this trip, to get her 14-year-old son, Brodie, to football practice.
Ash Lee and her husband, Brad, have four children – Brodie, 11-year-old Abigail, 11-year-old Mia Lou, and 10-year-old Benny. They are a blended family, with two born to Ash Lee and two born to Brad from previous marriages. Music, games, athletics, and art are just some of the activities the children participate in. Both parents have successful careers – Ash Lee as a nurse with ICU, hospice and in-school experience, Brad as a salesperson for a national transportation company. They rescued a dog recently. They own chickens.
Indeed, the Hicks family leads a busy life – a life that has gotten even busier since having to significantly pivot in March 2020.
The Hicks children (from left): Brodie, Mia Lou, Abigail, and Benny.
We Didn’t Know What To Do
“At first,” recalls Ash Lee, “when schools went remote, we were just in shock. We didn’t know what to do.” Their anxious feelings had an even tougher reality, as the family only had one laptop to share for the first few days.
Days turned into weeks at home. As Ash Lee and the family figured out its routine, the situation buoyed her, and she started to seriously think through her dream academic goal: Earning a master’s degree. “When I saw my children handling remote learning so well, I said to myself: ‘I can do this, too. I should lead by example.’”
Another a-ha moment occurred around the same time.
Seeing the perilous situation that nurses and healthcare workers were now in, and doing volunteer shifts as a COVID-19 vaccinator, Hicks realized something big:
That she could impact exponentially more lives as a Nurse Educator, by training the nurses of tomorrow.
The University advisors were specific in helping her understand what Ash Lee would learn, how she could use the knowledge, and how the Online program could fit into her already-busy schedule. From those conversations, her confidence in going back to school was building.
Then, come Christmas morning, Ash Lee received a special present.
Brad and the kids had enrolled her in the master’s degree program at Post University.
The enrollment was more than a special gift. It was a significant opportunity for Ash Lee to reach a new height that, as a child, she may not have ever thought was possible.
I Know What That Feels Like
Then she got pregnant, and everything changed.
Without access to higher education, the teen mom and her daughter lived in poverty. Ash Lee, in the process, had to figure out how to overcome the issues that can come along with it – food insecurity, exploitation, neglect, and abuse.
“I know what that feels like to be hungry. I knew early that I did not want to live that kind of life forever.” They remain moments that Ash Lee prefers not to recall. “I’m, I’m just, sorry. It is. it’s kind of hard to talk about that stuff.”
Luckily, Ash Lee’s teachers instilled in her that education was the way out, that she was smart, and that she could go as far as she wanted through education – despite the facts that very few family members ever finished high school, and no one had graduated college.
Ash Lee graduated high school, and then some.
Hicks earned an Associate Degree in Nursing, followed by a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing. She worked as a Critical Care Nurse for six years, a Hospice Nurse for two, and a Nationally Certified School Nurse for five. She volunteered for a number of organizations – from Girls on the Run International to the Medical Reserve Corps. Each accomplishment further blurred the painful images of her childhood, and each provided firm ground to build up towards her ultimate academic goal: Earning a master’s degree.
The difficult memories of her childhood would soon surface again – but in the most wonderful of ways.
Course One, Assignment One
Recalling it from her upbringing, and recognizing it in her local community, Ash Lee immediately thought of food insecurity. “Being a school nurse, I knew that food insecurity was a big deal,” she says. “And I knew that it was an even worse deal with the pandemic.”
Hicks began extensive research, and was shocked at what she found.
Among the jarring statistics: In 2019, prior to the pandemic, 26% of the entire population in Fayetteville was living in a food desert – meaning, they didn’t have access to a grocery store. Similarly, Arkansas ranked the third-highest state in the nation for food insecurity, with a prevalence of approximately 14% – a figure that has potentially doubled since then. And, in 2021, the state’s Food Bank CEO declared that “Arkansas is facing a food cliff.”
Ash Lee built an extensive proposed solution, in the form of a 32-slide presentation titled, “Cultivating Justice, Growing Knowledge, Harvesting Health: An Evidence-Based Change Project Supporting Community Health.” In essence, the piece walked the viewer through all sorts of insights – weaving Spradley’s Change Theory, ethical considerations, informatics, and legalities into a resounding conclusion.
The final line of the presentation read:
Having regular access to nutritious food and being empowered with education is the foundation of good health that nurses promote.
In front of her, there it was: The seed of a major solution.
Planting The Seed
The farm has no house structure, but is a sprawling swath of serenity – fifty-three sloped acres of sun-scorched grass, beautiful shale rock, majestic oak trees, a spring-fed pond, and a stunning view of the Ozark Mountains. Just beyond the main gate, tucked off in the property’s southeast corner, was a patch of land that – when Ash Lee and Brad bought it – was overrun by shoulder-height weeds and straw grass.
“I saw that spot as a large garden – an area where I could actually take the concept prompted by my Post University coursework and create the solution in real life.”
After a round of tilling, manure fertilization, and solarization – a process where black plastic is laid out to essentially heat and cook the ground so that the soil becomes very fertile and weed-free – the area was ready for planting.
There was only one issue: Ash Lee had zero agricultural experience, and essentially, knew nothing about vegetable farming.
Never deterred by a challenge – even one as ominous as this – Hicks and her sister-in-law, Jennifer, plowed ahead on the farm property, while cultivating more than 6,000 seedlings in their sunrooms, dining rooms and kitchens. Placing that first seed in the ground at the farm was a moment of catharsis for Ashlee. “I knew that this was something that I wanted to do,” she says, “and honestly felt like I had no other choice.” Learning as they went, and using the business planning from Ashlee’s Post University presentation, she and Jennifer opened Good2Grow FarNever deterred by a challenge – even one as ominous as this – Hicks and her sister-in-law, Jennifer, plowed ahead on the farm property, while cultivating more than 6,000 seedlings in their sunrooms, dining rooms and kitchens. Placing that first seed in the ground at the farm was a moment of catharsis for Ash Lee. “I knew that this was something that I wanted to do,” she says, “and honestly felt like I had no other choice.” Learning as they went, and using the business planning from Ash Lee’s Post University presentation, she and Jennifer opened Good2Grow Farm mere months after completing the course assignment.
Despite its infancy, this is no half-ripe operation.
In the first year, the ambitious duo sold harvested vegetables using a buy-one-donate-one model, donated produce to local food pantries, partnered with a local culinary school and botanical garden to expand distribution, and produced gardens-in-a-box, while providing education for how to properly grow the container-based food. Ash Lee and the business caught local, then regional, then national attention – including a feature segment on National Public Radio.
To Hicks, each recipient of Good2Grow produce – be it a paying customer or a person receiving a donation – is personal, the same philosophy that attracted her to Post University.
(From left) Jennifer Hudson, Ash Lee’s sister-in-law; Brodie; Abigail; and Ash Lee.
Post Makes It Personal
Not only for sparking the thought which led to the farm business, Ash Lee also credits the University for their highly attentive approach to her goals. “Post allowed me to learn about things that connect to my real life – and affect me personally.”
Hicks appreciates the depth and quality of feedback that all of her course instructors have given. And, she says, there’s a consistent recognition by faculty to support the balancing of academics with a person’s home and professional life.
“The Master of Science in Nursing program, with the specialization in Nursing Education, is a two-year program which I’m able to complete outside of work. The curriculum is interesting, and it’s very well organized. I know what to expect. There are no surprises. I feel very comfortable in the program and it does make it feel like the learning is going by quicker.”
A few months into her coursework, Ash Lee noticed a new scholarship posted on the University website, and was quick to apply. It seemed like the scholarship was about supporting someone just like her – and in 2021, Hicks became the first recipient of the Social Justice and Advocacy Scholarship for Healthcare Professionals, a full-tuition award. Simply stated, Ash Lee says, “Receiving this scholarship was life changing for me. The support and financial help have been tremendous.”
Ash Lee is set to graduate in January 2023. Yet, her ultimate job has already been secured.
Training the Nurses of Tomorrow
Like everything she has done, being a Nurse Educator has a larger purpose.
“The state of the nursing profession today really concerns me. After everything that nurses have been through in the pandemic, I know that they’re leaving the bedside in droves.
I just looked to the root cause. One of the root causes of the nurse shortage was that there was also a shortage of educators, and that prompted me to go that route.”
Says Thomas, “The first thing I observed about Ash Lee was that you never had to tell her two times about a responsibility and her role. She took those responsibilities and her role not only seriously, but passionately. I knew that she would not be a school nurse forever, and that we could all learn from her.”
Thomas believes that, to be a successful nurse, a person needs to have courage and confidence. Hicks, she says, has both in spades. Another sign that Ash Lee is all in on the nursing profession? She has an ankle tattoo of the caduceus – the healthcare symbol with two snakes coiling around a staff – to prove it.
A Proud Mother
Ash Lee has an ear-to-ear smile, as she remarks, “I’m very proud that my kids are active in giving back to the community. I know that they have happy childhoods, and they realize they can do anything. For me, as a mom, that’s a really amazing feeling.”
Brodie loves math, and dreams of a professional football career, with finance and marketing as additional plans. While just an incoming high school freshman, he is in a program to earn an Associate Degree from NorthWest Arkansas Community College by the time he graduates. Abi enjoys art and science but is leaning towards becoming a hairdresser. Mia loves the violin and wants to pursue it as a career. Benny’s favorite subjects are math, science, and physical education – but chuckles that maybe his favorite thing is to pick blackberries on the farm, for customers and for homemade cobbler.
For another assignment in the Theoretical Foundations course, in a paper titled, Empathy as a Catalyst for Justice: Philosophy of Professional Nursing Practice, Ash Lee wrote:
Fortunately for me, resilience cultivated by influences outside my home created a positive outlet for my trauma. I grew up feeling like there was no one to take care of me. Now as an adult, I’ve channeled that dark feeling into light by way of taking care of others.
“My kids know where I came from, how I’ve had to crawl out of a really bad circumstance – and know they don’t want to cannonball back into it. They see that the key is education. They see how important it is.”
And what about words of wisdom for others? Ash Lee smiles again.
“What I would say to a mom, or anybody who’s looking to go back to school, is do it.”
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