Crystal Smith does not have a resting state.
She works in emergency care — as she has for most of her 20-year nursing career — as a nursing instructor, and with a summer camp for kids ages 6-17. At home, she’s mom to four kids.
After decades of waiting for the “right time” to earn her MS in Nursing degree, Smith accepted what so many graduate students know too well.
“I was waiting for this 'perfect time’ to go back and realized there isn't a perfect time,” says Smith. “When your kids are little, you think it’ll be when they're older. And then when they're older, you're like, gosh, I should have done this when they were little.”
However, as Smith began her graduate coursework at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in January 2020, she didn’t know how quickly her philosophy would be challenged.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic challenged every aspect of Smith’s life, she endured. In Spring 2022, Smith earned her MSN, Family Nurse Practitioner, degree, and was named overall Outstanding Master’s Graduate.
She credits that success to the “most amazing” husband, as well as dedicated, supportive graduate faculty.
“I was just so grateful and impressed for how they managed all of that uncertainty,” says Smith.
Choosing UL Lafayette
Deciding to pursue her MSN degree wasn’t only about timing for Smith, but also opportunity.
“I wanted other opportunities and doors to open, and I wanted the ability to have more options regarding patient care as well as in volunteering, ministry, with mission trips, and things along those lines,” she says. “With your master’s, it opens the opportunity for so many things from providing care to underserved areas to teaching.”
With her array of activities and priorities, Smith needed a program that could provide flexibility and support alongside rigorous academics.
UL Lafayette offered just the right blend.
“I just had the most amazing experience,” says Smith. “It was really, really hard. The sacrifices I had to make to be able to do this while working and with kids were very hard. But the support I had from the graduate department, Dr. Lemoine, Dr. Lenahan — they’re just all amazing, amazing individuals, who really want the best for their students and for the nursing profession at all levels.”
Smith didn’t make the decision to go back to school in a vacuum, she says. It was a family decision, with she and her husband setting expectations for where Smith would need to step back, and others would step in.
Once Smith enrolled, she says planning and organization were key.
“I went into each semester with a plan, carving out time and saying this day is for this, and so on,” she says. “I knew I wasn't going to get to go on trips and vacations and a lot of social events. I dedicated my evenings and nights after kids were asleep to study and things like that.”
Part of her ability to plan came from expectations set by the program of how many hours students would need to set aside for each course, she says.
“I think they had a very good understanding and respect that we're working already, have families, careers, and that it's really, really hard,” she says. “They did everything they could to make sure you're successful.”
Smith says she was also able to connect with others in her cohort to build a lasting professional network.
"It's a little different when you're doing grad school online, because you're not physically hanging out with these people in class, but the way that they would do assignments with discussion boards and giving feedback on other people's work helped with that,” Smith says. "There are people that I will have connections with for the rest of my career because of school.”
From RN to NP
Smith is now on her way to becoming licensed as a Family Nurse Practitioner, but the transition from RN is more than a certification.
The knowledge Smith gained through the MSN program, she says, has changed her approach to patient care and underscored the importance of evidence-based practice.
"In every course, you are constantly brought back to, ‘this is why you do this,’ and it's evidence-based with the research to back it up, and how you determine whether something is quality research. That was a huge difference and a huge growth opportunity,” says Smith. “You're also learning way more about the pharmacology and pathophysiology of things. In general, the knowledge is vast and more detailed so that you can practice with an NP.”
Being able to recognize and synthesize quality research provided the foundation for Smith to design a COVID-19 testing program for 4,000-5,000 kids and staff attending summer camp in 2020.
“Parents were trying to find a safe way for kids to attend summer camps because they understood the benefits. It's so good for kids, and so that was a big thing,” says Smith.
It was also among the components of Smith’s nomination and ultimate selection as overall Outstanding Master’s Graduate. Criteria for the recognition include leadership, scholarship, service and research.
Smith also served as student representative for the Louisiana Association of Nurse Practitioners and has been a member of LANP’s health policy committee, helping to advocate for state legislation to improve access to health care services.
“I was very honored and very humbled,” says Smith. “It was a very proud moment. As a wife and a mom, it felt good to receive that so my husband and kids could celebrate that success through graduate school.”
As Smith prepares for her next steps, she’s doing so with ample evidence that she’s capable of hard and incredible things.
The UL Lafayette MSN program is ranked No. 10 in the country by U.S. News and World Report, and the college was among 17 nationwide in 2020 designated as a National League for Nursing Center of Excellence in Nursing Education. This year, the University was classified as a Carnegie R1 institution for research.
Prepare to deliver exceptional care as a Family Nurse Practitioner or Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner through an exceptional MSN degree program. Request more information today.