Amberley Kowalski

Life is too short to postpone your dreams – it’s a reality that Amberley Kowalski knows too well. The option to get on the fast-track to a health care career was what drew the 31-year-old Hebron, Illinois native to MSOE’s accelerated nursing program.

“I like MSOE’s program because it allows me to get moving forward,” Kowalski said.

The Accelerated Second Degree B.S. in Nursing is a compressed, year round curriculum designed to enable students to enter the workforce as professional nurses in about 18 months.

The degree program was designed specifically for the adult working professional who has already earned a bachelor of science or bachelor of arts degree in another discipline and is looking to change careers.

Kowalski’s circumstance wasn’t exactly so cut and dry. “I had what was basically an unexpected ‘break’ in my life,” she said.

The “break” Kowalski refers to occurred when she was in her mid-20s and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English. She was planning to become a teacher. Then in 2010, about halfway through her program at Northern Illinois University, Kowalski was diagnosed with a fast-growing cancer – specifically, a primary mediastinal large B-cell lymphoma (PMLBC).

Teaching English took a backseat to Kowalski’s new area of study: cancer.

“I really wanted to educate myself about what was going on so I read and researched everything I could,” she said. “My mom would come to appointments with me and she would joke that it sounded like two doctors talking and she didn’t understand what was being said.”

Kowalski spent two years in personal health limbo, riding the emotional highs and lows of the treatment rollerco
aster. “The scariest time was when the cancer came back in my liver after the first stem cell transplant using my own cells failed,” Kowalski said. “That was the worst possible outcome.”

Running out of local options, Kowalski’s research led her to the National Institute of Health in Maryland, where she was taken on by the foremost PMLBC researcher in the world. There, with her younger brother as a donor, she underwent a stem cell transplant. “When I could start to see the light at the end of the tunnel – that maybe I am going to get through this – I starting really thinking about what I am going to do with my life,” Kowalski said.

Her experience at the National Institute of Health as part of clinical research trial, as well as the time she spent with doctors and oncology nurses, put her on her current path. “When I was there, I met a nurse who was the same age as me,” Kowalski said. “She had had leukemia in high school. There is something about being cared for by people who have actually been there. They understand. I have something from my experiences that you can’t learn and I want to help other people who are going through it.”

Kowalski finished her bachelor’s degree at NIU in 2013, and, after completing her pre-requisites, in 2015 she entered the Accelerated Second Degree Nursing program at MSOE.

“These types of personal experiences and background are what nursing is all about – it is what draws people to the profession and what keeps you going day in day out,” said Dr. Jane Paige, program director of the Accelerated Second Degree Nursing program. “The ability to empathize and care for others who are being challenged with health issues, life and death, life style changes, and so on is not easy to fully understand unless you have gone though it yourself.”

Kowalski, an aspiring oncology nurse, currently volunteers with a variety of cancer related organizations, including: Be The Match, Athletes 4 Cancer, Relay for Life and Andrea Lynn Cancer Fund.

“It changed me,” Kowalski said. “My life is so much different now. If there is something I don’t want to do, I don’t do it. I concentrate on the things in life that make me happy.”