A woman wearing a sportscoat with a stethoscope around her neck
This month, Stacy Stutzman will earn her master’s degree in nursing with a concentration in nursing leadership and organizational
science at the VCU School of Nursing. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Class of 2022: Nursing student Stacy Stutzman refused to let cancer get in the way of her dreams

Receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees has been in the making for more than 30 years. Now, Stutzman wants to help the next generation of nurses reach their academic goals.

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In 1990, Stacy Stutzman began her academic journey at Virginia Commonwealth University with the goal of pursuing a bachelor’s degree in teaching. However, her life changed when her mother developed a serious illness. Her dream of becoming a teacher was put on pause only to shed light on a new direction.

“As a little girl, I always wanted to either be a teacher or a nurse,” Stutzman said. “When I was just shy of 19 years old, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I think at that point I realized my calling was to work in health care.”

After spending time away from school to help her mother recover from cancer, Stutzman completed an associate degree in nursing at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. She has since had a fulfilling career as a labor and delivery nurse at St. Mary's Hospital in Richmond and, most recently, a school nurse at Tomahawk Creek Middle School in Midlothian. But it was always her goal to go back to school.

In December 2021, Stutzman received her bachelor’s degree in nursing through the VCU School of Nursing, finishing what she had started more than 30 years ago. This month, she will be graduating with a master’s degree in nursing, with a concentration in nursing leadership and organizational science.

“I did not apply to any other schools. I knew I wanted to go back to VCU to finish at the same place where I had started. And here we are, finishing twice now,” she said. 

Three women standing next to each other
Stacy Stutzman, center, with her mother Sherrian Biggerstaff, left, and daughter Elizabeth Ferguson, right. (Courtesy of Stacy Stutzman)

For Stutzman, earning these degrees has been a long, winding road, and she has had to balance her academic goals with working full-time and raising a family. The pandemic also brought a unique set of challenges. As a school nurse, Stutzman spent many nights and weekends managing a contact tracing system for more than 1,700 students. 

But above all else, she says one obstacle has been particularly relentless. 

“Unfortunately, cancer has plagued my family for many years. My mom is currently battling cancer for the third time, previously with breast cancer and now with multiple myeloma. My sister has also had breast cancer, and I've had it twice, with last year being the most recent,” said Stutzman. “For years, cancer has kept stopping me from getting my bachelor’s degree. But last year, I said cancer is not going to win and I'm going to finish school. And that’s exactly what I did.”

Stutzman worked with her professors to make sure she kept up with her academic responsibilities and timed her medical appointments during school breaks. She’s proud to say that, even while juggling work, family and cancer treatment, she never turned in a late assignment. 

“The professors I’ve had at the VCU School of Nursing are fantastic. They were very gracious and understanding when it came to balancing school with my health needs,” Stutzman said. “I also have had incredible support from my husband, Todd, the rest of my family and my colleagues at work. It truly takes a village when you are going through that process. I don’t think I could have done it without them.” 

These achievements are even more meaningful since her mother has been able to watch her accomplish her academic dreams, she added. “It was always her goal in life to watch me graduate.” 

“Stacy gave up so much to take care of me and her younger sister,” said Stutzman’s mother, Sherrian Biggerstaff. “She has worked hard to achieve her goals, and I am so thankful to be here and watch her walk across the stage with her second degree.” 

Stutzman also had the special opportunity to wear her cap and gown with her daughter, Elizabeth, last year, who received a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from the Robertson School of Media and Culture at VCU.

Two women wearing graduation cap and gowns
Stutzman and her daughter, Elizabeth, had the special opportunity to graduate from VCU at the same time. Elizabeth earned a bachelor's degree in mass communications from the Robertson School of Media and Culture. (Courtesy of Stacy Stutzman)

Overcoming cancer and coming back to school has been a journey of resilience for Stutzman and has also given her a deeper level of understanding when providing care to patients. 

“I can sit down with my patients and say I truly understand what they’re going through. I know what it's like to have a health condition and push through it. I think that helps me build a stronger rapport with the people I’m caring for.”

Now that Stutzman is on the cusp of completing her master’s degree in nursing, she wants to pay it forward by helping other nursing students. She hopes to become a nurse instructor after graduation. 

“So many people have supported me while I worked to get my degrees. The professors at the VCU School of Nursing work so hard to help their students absorb everything and reach their full potential, and I feel like it's my turn to give back to the next generation of students,” Stutzman said. “Like I said, I always wanted to be a teacher or a nurse, and now I have the opportunity to do both.”