Family is important to Shaunde Smith and Rheala “Shantel” Parker. It’s where they derive their support to continue their education, and it’s the culture they’ve found within the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) online program.
The sisters are family nurse practitioners in their hometown of Silsbee, Texas, where they care for patients across the lifespan.
Silsbee, about 30 miles north of Beaumont, has a population of 6,611 residents — 16.6% of which live below the poverty line, as of the last census.
“We don’t have a lot of Medicaid or Medicare providers in a 30-mile radius,” says Parker, 44. “So we cover a large population of underserved Medicaid and Medicare patients. I don’t think there are any other providers that see from birth to about 10 years old, so we’re also the only ones who see those pediatric patients.”
The sisters began their nursing careers together as licensed practical nurses. Together, the two continued their education to become the first in their family to earn bachelor’s degrees, then masters’ degrees.
“We graduated the first one together, and hopefully we’ll graduate last one together,” Smith, 49, says. “I think that the support and the friendly competition pushes you to do a little better. When it gets rough and the time constraints hit you, you have that person to support you.”
As the only providers in the Silsbee Complete Healthcare Services clinic, Smith and Parker are driven to provide exceptional care. In 2018, the sisters decided to pursue their DNP degree online together through UL Lafayette.
“Nursing is continuously changing,” Parker says. “As I grew within my nursing career, I wanted more of a role in my patient’s day-to-day care and the ability to change things I felt were being missed in daily care.
“Truly it’s to optimize the level of care I provide my patients, have that ability to become a leader among my community, and really be able to drive some of these interdisciplinary teams. I really want to push within my community for better healthcare for some of our underprivileged.”
In choosing a DNP program, the two family nurse practitioners knew they wanted a high-quality online program that would still give them access to faculty and a physical campus.
“I don’t think there’s any way I could do this program if it was not online,” Parker says. “It would have just been something unachievable for me. I have a daughter; I’m a single mom. There’s no way to carve out time at someone else’s discretion of when I have to sit down and do everything; that’s one of the greatest parts of the online program.”
UL Lafayette — annually recognized by U.S. News & World Report for its graduate nursing programs — quickly rose to the top of their short list.
“When we called, Dr. (Jennifer) Lemoine got right on the phone; she answered all our questions,” Smith says. “Her enthusiasm over the program, that really put UL (Lafayette) over the top. We were already leaning in that direction, but her enthusiasm, talking to us and welcoming us, made such a difference.”
Choosing to pursue a terminal degree can be a daunting task, if not an overwhelming prospect. To prepare students for what’s to come, UL Lafayette’s online DNP program begins with a two-day orientation — on campus.
“We’d both had thoughts of, ‘we’re just not sure — is this the right time?’ Our parents are supportive, but they’re not exactly young,” Parker says. “When we went through orientation, we left knowing if there’s a time, this is the place where we can do it.
“They made you comfortable with the courses, what was going to be required and gave you the feeling that they were there to support us. We weren’t out there alone. Anything we need, they’re a phone call away.”
Smith agrees, saying orientation was a chance to put names with faces.
“(Orientation) gave us a great opportunity to develop relationships with classmates and faculty,” she says. “Talking to them, seeing their personality, you feel like you can relate to them. It gives you that extra feeling of support.”
That support was much needed as the sisters pushed through their first semester, trying to strike a balance among a full-time workload, family, and doctoral coursework.
“There were a lot of small assignments that weren’t required, but encouraged. It was trying to find the middle ground. Both of us have always tried to do the very best; we felt we weren’t doing ourselves justice or the program justice,” Smith says.
On top of the pressure they felt to excel, their father’s health began to deteriorate.
“So we did consider leaving the program for a semester,” Smith says. “We just didn’t know if that’s where we wanted to allocate our time.”
But after speaking with professors Dr. Jennifer Lemoine and Dr. Jeanne Cartier, the sisters decided to remain in the program.
“Thank goodness we did,” says Smith, now with a year in the program under her belt.
Dr. Cartier concedes earning a DNP degree is tough, but says faculty members do what they can to accommodate working nurse practitioners.
“It’s a rigorous program,” Dr. Cartier says. “We will support students and walk with them — or behind them and push them — every step of the way, but they need to be the leaders.”
Parker says faculty members continued to check in, asking how Smith and Parker were faring personally and as students.
“They were the epitome of kind and considerate. Honestly, it was like you wanted to welcome them into your family,” she says. “It was just a really nice atmosphere. It was nice to know they’re willing to work with you. If they can do anything to ease the burden, they will. It was so appreciated at that moment.”
The program is designed to ensure a supportive atmosphere among students, even through online interactions.
“Sometimes it’s nice to have that person that’s going through the same thing. Whether it’s sister or anyone you have,” Parker says. “At UL (Lafayette), they make a real effort to have interaction among each one of the students. In our cohort, there’s no one I couldn’t call.
“I brought my ‘friend’ along, but they set up an atmosphere of collaboration among peers. They’ve done a better job than anywhere that I’ve seen or even heard of.”
As Smith and Parker advance through the program, designs for their DNP Synthesis Projects are taking shape.
Smith says she’s interested in developing primary care screening protocols for adolescents to reduce the long-term effects of bullying, which can range from missed school days to suicide attempts.
Parker is exploring how to avoid long-term effects of obesity, like diabetes, in children ages 11-17 during wellness visit screenings.
The children in their community aren’t the only ones who will benefit from Parker’s and Smith’s endeavors.
Smith’s 19- and 20-year-old daughters and Parker’s 15-year-old daughter have seen their mom and aunt blaze new trails as they’ve set examples of lifelong learning and achievement.
“We are the first of our entire family to go to college, in general. For our family, it was quite an accomplishment,” Parker says. “When we went to LVN school together, it was a big deal for our parents, so I think just completing this program, and being able to have that family support, it was a blessing from God.”