Rutgers Nursing Student Flies High While Charting a New Course

Rutgers Nursing Student Flies High While Charting a New Course

Mike Napolitano turns the benefits of being a flight attendant into a dual career

Image of Mike Napolitano
Mike Napolitano often tutors classmates and was recognized recently for his academic performance.
Photo: Jeff Tolvin

'Deep down, when I was younger, I was always interested in science and medicine, but not as a nurse. But then I spent a lot of time in hospitals and saw how they worked.  And I’m thinking that in some areas, I could do a better job than some of the nurses.'
Mike Napolitano

Flying to domestic or international locales –Paris, London, Los Angeles and San Francisco – never becomes tiresome to Mike Napolitano. It was a passion for exploring other cultures that lured him into becoming an American Airlines flight attendant 23 years ago.

But recently the job’s other benefits, particularly seniority and scheduling flexibility, have taken on new importance, paving the way for a second career – as a nurse – that will allow him to keep flying and exploring while pursuing a competing interest in health care and science, which he’s never had time for until now.

In October, Napolitano will graduate from Rutgers School of Nursing’s 15-month, accelerated bachelor of science program, designed for second-career aspirants who’ve already earned one degree.

“I’m a nurturer and a caregiver,” says Napolitano, who was recently recognized for his academic performance – he maintains a near-perfect, 3.9 grade point average and often tutors classmates – and who is looking forward to a dual-career lifestyle of helping others.

"With health care undergoing significant change, I am enthusiastic about the opportunities for a health care professional, and being a flight attendant is great because it's the type of job that allows me to do both,” he says.

Denise Tate, program director for the accelerated bachelor of science program at the School of Nursing, notes that extremely motivated adults representing a wide range of first careers enter the intense, 15-month program as Napolitano has, including an increasing number of males, who today make up approximately 20 percent of the 300 students in the program.

"Our students are so driven and really want it," Tate says.  "In the accelerated program students sacrifice a lot of family life and fun for 15 months, five days a week.  They are really motivated."

A 2012 study by Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predicted 5.6 million new health care jobs by 2020.  Earlier this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 19 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations.

While it may seem unusual today for nurses to work as flight attendants, the two professions actually have a historical link. In their infancy, commercial airlines required flight attendants to be registered nurses but dropped that stipulation at the start of World War II as nurses were needed to treat wounded veterans.

The FAA mandates that all U.S. airlines provide annual flight attendant training that includes CPR, the Heimlich maneuver and general first aid procedures.

Fortunately, the health-related issues Napolitano and his airline colleagues encounter most often in the air are the treatable symptoms from motion sickness, diabetes and hypoglycemia. His only mid-air medical emergency was when a passenger went into labor during a flight from Port-au-Prince to New York.  Napolitano and his crew kept the woman comfortable while the flight was diverted to Miami in time for an in-hospital delivery.

Image of Mike Napolitano in flight attendant uniform.
Napolitano's passion for traveling has not waned. Working as a flight attendant has allowed him to attend school and begin a second career. 
Photo: Courtesy Mike Napolitano
Ironically, it was a medical emergency on the ground that got him seriously thinking about his second career. When Napolitano's 62-year-old father, who had heart disease, had a massive heart attack in 2001 that ended his life, Napolitano administered CPR until the EMT’s arrived.

Just before his father was stricken, Napolitano had completed his annual American Airlines re-qualification training. “I was glad I was with him when he passed,” he says.  “I know I did everything possible to save him.”

Eventually, as some colleagues became part-time nurses, he realized that with the care he had given his father and stepmother, he, too, had a lot to offer to others.

“Deep down, when I was younger, I was always interested in science and medicine, but not as a nurse,” says Napolitano, who also holds a degree in business administration from the University of Rhode Island.  “But then I spent a lot of time in hospitals and saw how they worked.  And I’m thinking that in some areas, I could do a better job than some of the nurses.”

While a nursing student, the 47-year-old Bridgewater resident has averaged 50 hours flying per month, well above the threshold for maintaining his employment benefits, leaving ample time to work perhaps three or four days per week as a nurse.

That’s where the seniority he’s developed becomes an invaluable advantage.  He selects his monthly flight assignments ahead of colleagues with less employment time at American.  That flexibility allowed him to choose domestic flights around the days he needed to be home to attend classes, first for four prerequisite science courses and then for nursing school – the same advantage he’ll use to launch his second career.

He’s unsure where he will attempt to begin his nursing career, once he is licensed, but a recent academic rotation has him considering opportunities to work with patients with mental illnesses.

“I really enjoy working and interacting with people – helping them and understanding their needs,” he says.  “While flying, I’ve had wonderful opportunities to meet people.  I find human behavior fascinating.”

For media inquiries, contact Jeff Tolvin at