HAMMOND — When it came time to select a career path several decades ago, Manisa Baker and Martha Drake chose nursing. At Saturday’s commencement ceremonies at Purdue University Northwest, the two women became the first in the university’s history to be awarded their doctorate of nursing practice degrees.

During the ceremony, black and apricot-striped hoods were placed over their heads and shoulders in a ritual known as “hooding.” Apricot denotes the PNW College of Nursing.

Applause and cheers filled the Fitness & Recreation Center as the women walked across the stage.

Baker, of St. John, and Drake, of Portage, entered the applied doctoral degree in nursing program in fall 2015. This degree program is a collaboration between the Hammond campus and Purdue University West Lafayette.

“This is the first doctoral program at Purdue Northwest. The applied doctoral degree is the highest degree that can be achieved,” said Lisa Hopp, dean of the College of Nursing.

"What really influences our curriculum is bridging the gap between discovery of new knowledge and putting it into practice," Hopp said about the program, which has 11 students enrolled. “These women are knowledge brokers.”

To earn their doctoral degrees, Baker and Drake each completed a clinical inquiry project.

Baker’s project explored how to support new nurses and reduce turnover through implementation of a professional development and career planning pilot program.

A clinical nurse specialist, Baker works with cardiologists at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove and is an instructor at PNW in the College of Nursing.

Hopp said Baker’s project provides “continuing clinical practice and brings it into the classroom.”

Drake chose to research how transitional care interventions can reduce the 30-day heart failure hospital readmission rates. Among the protocols she developed was an extensive phone interview with patients with heart failure diagnoses who were recently discharged.

“This is a huge public health issue,” Hopp said.

A family nurse practitioner, Drake works in the cardiology department at Franciscan Alliance in Munster and St. James Hospital in Olympia Fields. She also has served at AseraCare Hospice in Valparaiso for a number of years.

Baker, 41, and Drake, 46, said they were drawn to nursing careers for various reasons.

“My mom’s a nurse ‘living’ in the OR. We have pictures of me in surgical scrubs,” Baker said. “I grew up in a nursing culture. My mom convinced me.”

Drake’s older sister also is a nurse.

“Originally I was looking at teaching. But I spent a lot of time in the hospital when I was 12 to 13,” she recalled. “There was one particular nurse who took care of me. I’m still in touch with her. I wanted to be like them.”

The women were among 806 individuals who received their degrees during three commencement ceremonies. PNW’s Westville campus ceremony on Friday afternoon and two at the Hammond campus on Saturday conferred 673 baccalaureate, 131 master’s degrees and the two applied doctoral degrees.

Raising a canoe paddle above his head, keynote commencement speaker Stephen R. Turner encouraged those receiving their degrees to “Paddle your canoe!” in a refrain shouted by the sea of graduates donning mortarboards at the three ceremonies.

Turner, a PNW alumnus and vice chancellor of finance and administration, told those gathered about navigating various obstacles as they embark on a new journey. He recounted lessons throughout his own journey as a first-generation college graduate, which eventually led to his senior leadership position at Purdue Northwest.

“Envision your next journey as a canoe trip on a river you’ve never seen. You can choose your river, but you can’t possibly know exactly what you will find on it,” he said.

“Don’t be satisfied with a float trip. Certainly do not sit on the bank and let the current flow past you.”