Aja Hallmark wants to excel in nursing. Coming from a family of nurses, she didn't have to look far for inspiration. Her grandmother, June Davis, is a retired nurse practitioner.
Hallmark wasn't sure where she would earn her advanced nursing degrees when she and her husband, Justin, moved from Alabama to Louisiana three years ago. But it wasn't long before she heard of the University of Louisiana Monroe (ULM) and its reputation for nursing education.
"As soon as I got settled in Louisiana, I wanted to go to a school that was well known around here," Hallmark said. "I work at St. Francis Medical Center in Monroe, and we had a lot of ULM students come to our hospital for clinicals. I knew that was where I wanted to go."
Hallmark didn't need to do a lot of price comparisons or research to make her decision. Hearing from friends and co-workers about ULM's online RN to BSN program was enough to get her started.
And when she got going, she didn't want to stop.
"It's not that I prefer online over a traditional school — it just worked out so much better," she said. "It really helped me to have the school close by in case I needed to do anything on campus."
She enrolled in a ULM master's program the same month she completed the requirements for her bachelor's degree – May 2019.
"Okay, let's do this," she remembers saying to herself. "I knew I always wanted to do more, but I was happy to get to do it at the same school. It's been really good."
Hallmark has found taking classes online to be tough but doable while working a full-time job first as a telemetry nurse and then as a labor and delivery nurse.
Noting a key takeaway from the online RN to BSN program, Hallmark said that learning new research skills has made her a more well-rounded nurse.
"I don't love research, but it helped me with my writing skills and learning how to write in APA format," she said. "I'm so glad that I was introduced to that and had to do that so many times, because now in the MSN program, everything we do is APA-based.
"In an associate's program, the nursing aspect is pretty much the same, but we don't do any research. You barely write anything at all. So when I started the BSN program, I knew it was going to be a challenge because I had to learn that, but it was great."
The research methodology has helped Hallmark beyond the digital classroom. She has found that the skills transfer to her daily work with patients too.
"It helps me look more at the big picture of the patient," she said. "It also helped me become more comfortable with disease processes and know how to look for peer-reviewed journals, read through the literature and find evidence-based practices. I didn't know how to do that before I was in a bachelor's program."
An academic program is only as good as the people behind it, and Hallmark has found the ULM faculty to be supportive and easy to reach.
"The instructors here are super student-friendly," she said.
"They want us to be successful. When you have a dream, you feel inspired to do more with your career when you have all of these people on your side."
Hallmark points out that it is ultimately the student who is responsible for his or her own success.
"That's the thing with the online program," she said. "The teachers aren't going to be there making you do your assignments or make sure they're on time. You have to put forth that effort."
For the Love of Nursing
Going from RN to BSN to MSN without any time off may seem like lot for any student, but Hallmark is taking it all in stride.
"I don't have a ton of complaints," she said. "I know that this sounds really crazy, but I like learning and I love learning about something that I want to learn more about."
Being a better nurse is its own reward for Hallmark whether the financial payoff comes sooner or later.
"It's not really about the money for me," she said. "It's going to be great when I'm finished, but I have so much to offer with nursing."
Hallmark looks forward to one day becoming a nurse practitioner like her grandmother. For the time being, she is happy to put her education into practice at the bedside with her patients and their families.
"I could be so much more, and I feel very inspired too," she said. "I love nursing. I love my patients. I love being able to build relationships with them and their families. This extra education gives me the tools to be able to do that."
Personal motivation is a big part of Hallmark's journey, but she also sees the larger impact she can make as a nurse.
"We need more nurses because healthcare is changing so much," she said.
She challenges nurses and prospective nurses to live up to their true potential.
"You should do more if you feel that you can offer more to your profession," she said. "There's nothing wrong with an associate [degree], but you have to have a bachelor's if you want to do more with nursing, period."Learn more about the University of Louisiana Monroe online RN to BSN program.
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