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'An amazing journey': Sisters set to graduate from Northland College

Sisters Deborah Fisher, 57, left, and Georgia Osmundson, 59, will graduate today from Northland Community & Technical College with their degrees in license practical nursing. It was Georgia who first considered going back to school but said she wouldn't go unless her sister went too. Bethany Wesley | Bemidji Pioneer

FOSSTON - Georgia Osmundson had just one request when she was about to enter nursing school.

"I said that if I was going to go to nursing school, I'd like my sister to go with me," Georgia recalled.

She got her wish. Georgia, 59, and her younger sister, Deborah Fisher, 57, today both will graduate from Northland Community & Technical College with degrees in licensed practical nursing.

"I've always wanted to be a nurse," Deborah said.

"It's been an amazing journey," Georgia said.

They "basically put their lives on hold for two years," Deborah said, as they dove into their schoolwork, taking anywhere from 14-16 credits a semester.

The sisters quickly became recognizable on campus.

"We probably put in more time (than typical)," Georgia said. "It mattered to us. It wasn't just about passing for us, it was about getting the knowledge so we can be the best that we can be."

As they continued to make the Dean's and President's lists classmates sought them out for help. Two of their classmates were Sheila Johnson of St. Hilaire, Minn., and Michelle Erickson of Thief River Falls. Those women, in their mid- to late-40s, also were a bit older than the "normal" college student.

Together, the four founded the "GGs" study club - the Geriatric Girls. The four GGs will together drive to Fargo, N.D., in about two weeks to take their board exams, the last step before finding employment.

"We've gotten very close," said Georgia of their friendship.

Coming back together

Georgia and "Debbie" have five brothers, but are the only sisters among their siblings.

They were born in Grand Forks, N.D., but moved to Bemidji as children and together graduated from Bemidji High School in 1972.

They tried to remain close over the years, Georgia said, but it became difficult as life drew them in different directions.

Despite marrying Lou Osmundson, also a Bemidji native, Georgia's life took her away from the immediate area. She served as a general manager for Burger Kings throughout Minnesota and, more recently, worked in a novelty warehouse company in Minnetonka.

It was about four years ago, though, when Lou told her he wanted to move back up north.

They moved to Fosston, near Deborah's home outside of Lengby. Georgia got a job a TEAM Industries in Bagley, but within 60 days of her hire, she was laid off.

"For the first time in my life I drew unemployment," she said.

She went to the Dislocated Workers Program in Crookston, where she was asked if she would be interested in going to college.

She considered it, wondering what she would possibly pursue. It was Lou, her husband, who suggested nursing.

"He said I've always been good with people, that I like working with people, that I like helping people," she said.

Georgia was about to enroll when she was asked if there was anything more that could be done for her.

"I knew that if I was going to do it, I'd want to do it with my sister," she said.

Meanwhile Deborah had been working throughout the region in restaurants cafes as she found work. Most recently, she had been working at Shooting Star Casino in the buffet area.

Deborah, who had taken a few college classes over the years, was thrilled with the opportunity to go full-time.

"I just like school," she said. "If I didn't have to pay for it, I'd be a student forever."

'I cannot do this

Never wanting to count on good weather, Georgia and Deborah would purposely time their commute to reach Thief River Falls about an hour earlier than necessary, partly because of unpredictable weather.

While one sister would drive, the other would quiz her.

But schooling wasn't always easy. They faced up to five to seven tests a week. And neither had much experience at all with computers.

"I didn't even know how to turn it on," Deborah said. "It was a big culture shock."

"We laugh about it now," Georgia said.

The lowest point, for Georgia came in the second semester of the nursing program during an unusually difficult test.

"I walked out of the room, I called my husband and said, 'I cannot do this,'" she recalled.

He simply told it was OK, that she should just come on home, that he was there waiting for him.

"And that's exactly what I needed to hear," Georgia said. "He knew that, then, I'd be just that much more determined."

Ironically, Georgia not only passed the test, but she earned a very good grade.

'A love of learning'

The sisters not only made an impression on their friends and classmates, but the faculty, too, said they were rare students.

Professors applauded the sisters' efforts in letters to the Pioneer:

- "Right from the start I could tell they both truly wanted to be a nurse to care for others," wrote Dorinda Sorvig, a practical nursing faculty member. "Their attitude was genuine; they were going back to school because THEY wanted to, not because someone else was pushing them to do so."

- "I enjoyed the enthusiasm Debbie and Georgia brought to the class immensely," wrote Faith Rud, sociology instructor. "Both exhibited a love of learning, were always prepared for class and engaged and willing to comment on the relevant issues of the curriculum."

- "(They) were not just in school to finish their classes and get their degrees, they were there to make themselves available and connect with others," wrote Elise Row, English and speech faculty member. "They offered a listening ear, encouragement and even tutoring services. Their work ethic was inspirational."

- "The two of them have motivated their classmates to study harder and strive to become competent nurses, not just to pass the tests," wrote Carmen Stinson, practical nursing instructor.

A new chapter

The sisters today will walk in commencement, among 256 students to be honored during the 7 p.m. ceremony in the campus gymnasium Thief River Falls.

They have mixed feelings.

"It's sad," said Deborah, the school-lover,

"I think it's awesome," Georgia said. "I'm excited to go into life and start contributing to society."

Noting the care that their parents each received in their final years, both Georgia and Deborah said they would like to go into home health care.

"It is so good for older people to be able to stay in their homes, if they can just get a little bit of help," Deborah said.

But before that happens, they need to pass board exams. The GGs plan to together take their boards in about two weeks. Georgia and Deborah plan to use that time to focus on their families and husbands.

"Both have been very supportive," Deborah said of Lou and John.

"We just couldn't have asked for a better experience," Georgia said.