UNC Greensboro graduates Susan Fischer, Kathrin Thormann, and Karin Ritschard pose for a photograph at graduation.

Susan Fischer had never been to Greensboro before she boarded a plane in Switzerland and flew 10 hours across the Atlantic Ocean to attend her college graduation.

Fischer, Kathrin Thormann, and Karin Ritschard Ugi had talked about how there was no way they’d miss their graduation from the UNC Greensboro School of Nursing, even if it meant traveling halfway across the globe to be there.

On May 4, the three advanced practice nurses who live and work in Switzerland took turns walking across a stage inside UNCG’s Fleming Gymnasium and being hooded as new graduates of the doctor of nursing practice (DNP) program.

The School of Nursing’s post-master’s DNP concentration is offered entirely online, so Fischer, Thormann, and Ritschard Ugi had never visited UNCG’s campus until they came for their graduation. While there, they joked with professors and classmates they had seen only on Zoom.

“It’s a lifetime event, and I wanted to be part of this community,” said Fischer, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner in Switzerland. “I wanted to feel the feeling of real people. If you see for three years only people online, you think they don’t exist. And now it’s really amazing and impressive to see all the people here in-person, and it makes a difference.”

Over the past few years, Fischer, Thormann, and Ritschard Ugi had to do a lot of explaining while talking to their Swiss colleagues about what they were learning in the School of Nursing’s DNP program. That’s because nurses in Switzerland can earn a PhD, but a DNP degree isn’t offered.

Through their online classes, the three Swiss graduates learned more about leadership and management skills to better address health care challenges that they might face.

“We do not have any programs like this in our country, and I mean to work as a nurse practitioner is great, but you want to move forward,” said Thormann, who works as a nurse practitioner in Switzerland. “You want to develop your skills and knowledge, and it’s quite hard to find a program like this in Europe.”

Susan Fischer smiles with UNC Greensboro School of Nursing professor Dr. Wanda Williams.

Fischer, Thormann, and Ritschard Ugi knew each other before enrolling in UNCG, and they learned about the DNP program through a relationship that the School of Nursing has with Switzerland’s Bern University of Applied Sciences.

There’s a six-hour time difference between Greensboro and Bern, which is the capital of Switzerland. That made things interesting for the three nurses.

When students in the post-master’s DNP concentration would meet online to start class, it would be 9 a.m. in Greensboro and 3 p.m. in Bern. Fischer, Thormann, and Ritschard Ugi would regularly stay in class until past 9 p.m. their time.

“It always felt like we were part of the class. We were not these three students from Switzerland,” said Ritschard Ugi, who serves on the board of directors for two hospitals in Switzerland. “It was really nice.”

Story and photography by Alex Abrams, School of Nursing