Irma G. Aguilar Ray - Have Studies, Will Travel - Commuter Crosses State in Pursuit of Knowledge

Article published on August 31, 1998 in Arlington Morning News
Reprinted with Permission of The Dallas Morning News

Irma Aguilar admits her schedule is a little hectic. In fact, she said, anyone who is rational would think she is crazy.

Mrs. Aguilar, 51, is a super commuter. She lives in Odessa, does sleep research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, is in the nurse practitioner program at the University of Texas at Arlington, is earning a doctorate from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is a member of the nursing faculty at Texas Tech University's satellite campus in Odessa.

Although many people shake their heads in disbelief, Mrs. Aguilar said her schedule is not impossible to follow.

"It really is quite convenient to do all of these things because they complement each other," she said. "Although it sounds insane, it really works well. It costs a tremendous amount of energy and planning, but it is workable."

UTA estimates that about 50 percent of its students live in Arlington. Diane Snow, director of the psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner program at UTA, said many people commute to attend the program, but Mrs. Aguilar's situation is extraordinary.

"It's not unusual for a person to commute, but Irma is unusual because she's getting her doctorate as well," Dr. Snow said. "She's extremely inspiring to me for her courage to step outside what she knows very well - nursing - and learn something new to her. She has tremendous drive and energy."

The main reason she is able to weave several programs together is timing. She started the UTSA doctoral program in nursing via interactive video six years ago at the Texas Tech campus. Mrs. Aguilar said taking the class at Tech and driving two hours was a much better option than driving to San Antonio from Odessa - about a five-hour trip.

About three years ago, as the in-class hours from her doctorate were winding down, Mrs. Aguilar enrolled in a few classes in the nurse practitioner program at UTA because she needed more education. The additional education was needed, she said, to complete her doctoral research on the effects of depression on the sleep patterns of Mexican-Americans. Mrs. Aguilar said she decided that since she had taken so many UTA classes, she might as well finish the master's program.

"As I took one course after another, I realized I was on my way to being a nurse practitioner," she said.

Now that Mrs. Aguilar only lacks clinical hours for the nurse practitioner program, she combines her efforts with her doctoral research at the sleep lab at UT Southwestern in Dallas. She said she often scouts out good sleep study subjects while she is in Dallas on Thursdays doing nurse practitioner hours.

Generally, Mrs. Aguilar flies to Dallas. If she has to make more than one trip a week to the Arlington-D/FW area, she drives her 1990 Chrysler Fifth Avenue, which has 197,000 miles on it, to save money.

Since there is not a particular clinic at which students must complete their clinical hours, Mrs. Aguilar also does her remaining 270 hours of nurse practitioner work in her hometown of Odessa, about 353 miles from the Arlington-D/FW area.

On Tuesdays and Saturdays, Mrs. Aguilar teaches nursing in Odessa at a satellite campus of Texas Tech University. She said Tech has been very supportive of her ambition as long as she doesn't neglect her students. The class she teaches is set up for people who already work as nurses, so it is very flexible, she said.

She would not be able to afford to travel across Texas and participate in so many activities if she did not have the support of the American Nurses Association Ethnic Minority Fellowship Program, Mrs. Aguilar said. At the height of her travel three years ago, she was receiving $10,000 from the fellowship. Now that her schedule is winding down, the money has been scaled back proportionately, she said.

Mrs. Aguilar said she is not a stranger to a long commute. "I earned a master's in counseling from the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and a nursing master's from the University of Texas at El Paso while living in Odessa," she said. "Being a commuting student was nothing new. I knew what to expect."

A mother of three, Mrs. Aguilar said the tremendous expense, both financially and personally, are worth it to achieve her goals.

"I have spent many a weekend sleeping in the sleep lab," she said. "I have to be here to interpret for some of the Mexican-American subjects who don't speak English. And God bless my husband - he has actually driven in with me and slept at the lab to be there with me - trying to keep this relationship together. All this has definitely been a family effort."

Mrs. Aguilar's two sons attend UTA and let their mom crash at their apartment every once in a while, she said. Sometimes, her husband and daughter drive to Arlington so the whole family can visit, she said.

What the 51-year-old wants to do when she "grows up" is fuse her sleep research and psychiatric nurse practitioner education. As a Mexican-American, her doctoral research is personally very important to her, Mrs. Aguilar said.

"People who are depressed have very poor quality of sleep," she said. "It affects your memory, ability to concentrate, decision-making, energy levels - it permeates your life. That could relate to the way people perform. I'm specifically looking at Mexican-Americans because there is nothing that looks at the neurology of depressed Mexican-Americans."

With a sigh of relief, Mrs. Aguilar said the beginning of the end of the craziness will come in December, when she finishes the nurse practitioner program. She is halfway done with her doctoral research in the sleep lab with about a year left.

Mrs. Aguilar said now that she's come this far, she won't let anything stand in the way of accomplishing her dreams.

"When I start feeling tired, I just stop that negative behavior and remind myself of my goals and of what I have accomplished," she said. "When I stop and reflect, it gives me another boost. Sometimes I don't know how I have done it. I'm had tremendous support from UTSA, UTA and the sleep lab. They've really rooted for me."