A Smart Start to a nursing career

Starting this fall, a cohort of nursing majors in the South Carolina Honors College will start on the path to a career that might include research and academia — along with clinical nursing practice.

The Smart Start Nursing Program includes all incoming Honors College students who declare nursing as their major. Typically, students must complete two years of a strict prenursing curriculum then face tough competition from their peers to be admitted to nursing’s upper division. The Smart Start students will be automatically accepted into the upper division of the College of Nursing, as long as they maintain Honors College GPA requirements.

“Immediate acceptance into the upper division of the nursing program has been an indescribable blessing,” says Lauren Fryer, an Honors College freshman. “To be a full nursing student from day one makes my goals seem that much more real and attainable. I’m free to use my energy to think of research I want to do or mentors I want to learn from, rather than stressing over my class rank.”

Robin Dawson Estrada, director of the new program and an assistant professor, says the program was developed to engage the university’s top students in the nursing curriculum at the start of their time at Carolina and to quickly expose nursing students to research in hopes they will consider careers in research and teaching.

“These are Honors College students, the best of the best who apply to the university. Because they are admitted to the upper level immediately, it gives us the opportunity to offer them honors classes and earlier research classes,” she says.

The expectation is for students to take graduate-level courses during their senior year to help prepare them for the rigors of Ph.D. or Doctor of Nursing Practice programs.

“I am very interested in research and pursuing a higher-level degree after I complete my BSN,” Fryer says. “The ability to join a faculty member in research or even begin my own research with the help of an experienced mentor has certainly made me rethink the possibilities I have to impact people as a nurse.”

By capturing the cohort of graduate-school bound nursing students earlier, the university hopes to increase the number of nurses doing research and address the shortage of nurses who pursue doctoral degrees. That’s important because the average age when a nurse completes a doctorate is about 50, compressing the length of time available for them to complete research.

“Most nurses graduate, go out and work, get involved in family life and don’t go back to school,” Estrada says. “This is basically a pipeline for moving younger people into positions of leadership and academic work.”

Students who enter the cohort are not required to pursue graduate degrees. Estrada says she believes it is a good idea for a nurse to practice for a little while before heading back to the classroom, or to take classes while they are working as nurses. But even those who don’t want to continue classwork after earning their undergraduate degree will develop connections and research skills that will open the door to higher quality internships and residencies.

“Nurses are uniquely prepared to do health care research because we know what patients experience and we know what patients need because we are in the trenches,” says Estrada, a pediatric nurse practitioner who earned her doctorate at age 48. “What made me a good researcher is that I was in practice for a long time.”

She says the work ethic and passion among nursing students at Carolina makes her excited about the future of nursing education.

“I’m optimistic about students who come into our nursing program. They’re bright, they’re eager for knowledge, and they want to go out and change the world. And they have the tools to do that that my generation didn’t have,” Estrada says. “We’re impacting the health of people in South Carolina and the quality of nursing care in South Carolina. It’s a very exciting place to be.”

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