GALESBURG — Caitlin Evans came home one day and had a question for her parents.
Who, exactly, is Doogie Howser?
As Evans gets set to graduate Thursday from Carl Sandburg College’s associate degree nursing program at only 17 years old, it’s understandable that she’s drawn comparisons to the titular teenage doctor played by Neil Patrick Harris on the early 1990s sitcom.
“Someone called me that, and I had no idea (what it meant),” Evans said.
Thirty-year-old pop culture references might be one of the few things Evans isn’t well schooled in.
When she was just 13, Evans took a placement test at Sandburg so she could begin enrolling in dual credit courses while a student at Williamsfield High School. By taking dual credit classes throughout the school year and during the summer, Evans was able to graduate from Williamsfield with her high school diploma in the spring of 2020 and from Sandburg with her Associate in General Studies that summer at the ripe old age of 15. She applied for Sandburg’s College of Nursing, got accepted and began nursing school in the fall of 2020.
“It was kind of a culture shock,” Evans said. “I went from being 13 and in seventh grade, then going to high school and then doing college and graduating all in the span of two years. Then when I started the nursing program it was like, this is my focus right now.”
Evans said she always knew she wanted to work in health care. Her original plan was to become a pharmacist, but that required being at least 18 years old, which didn’t match up with her educational fast-track. She turned her attention to nursing like her mom Sarah, a 2012 graduate of Sandburg’s nursing program. Her dad Brandon, a lawyer, checked to make sure she’d be eligible to take the NCLEX at such a young age. Other than Evans being unable to use a Hoyer lift (operators need to be at least 18), they didn’t come across any age-related issues.
“There are so many opportunities,” Evans said. “You can work in bedside nursing, or you can work in an office setting or you can go into research or education. There are just endless opportunities in nursing.”
Still too young to drive during her first year of nursing school, Evans relied on rides from her mom to get to class, which led to some curious questions from classmates who didn’t know how old she was.
“I think that was confusing for people at first,” Evans said. “They were like, ‘Who’s driving you?’”
And making small talk with patients and nurses who didn’t know about Evans’ age at her clinical sites often led to some interesting exchanges as well.
“I think that I can pull off that I’m older than I actually am,” Evans said. “They’ll mention they have kids or that they’re married, things like that. Then they’d ask me questions like that when I’m at clinical, and it’s like, ‘No, definitely not.’”
Even though she’s not yet old enough to vote, Evans’ age has been anything but an obstacle in her time at Sandburg. She’s been on the dean’s list each semester, a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and will graduate this week with highest honors, which are reserved for students with a 3.9-4.0 GPA.
“I think it’s always felt right for me. I’ve always been very driven and organized,” Evans said. “It was kind of — not boring — but just not challenging when I was in classes during middle school or high school. It’s just always felt like this was right.”
Next on Evans’ to-do list is to continue toward her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. She wants to go into research care and perhaps get her doctor of nursing practice. But first, after having in-person graduation ceremonies for high school and her first degree from Sandburg wiped out because of COVID — she’ll get to take a moment to walk across the stage for the first time as a graduate.
“I've gotten straight A's throughout all of nursing school just because I like to — not be a perfectionist — but I like to set high goals for myself,” Evans said. “Everyone always says nursing school is so hard, and it is hard. But I got straight A’s throughout it and completed all my clinicals and did everything. Now it’s taking time to think about, ‘Oh wow, I already did it.’”