As she faced her final semester of nursing school last fall, Brittany Lawrence worried she might not be able to finish.

For two years, she’d been working three 12-hour shifts a week as a certified nursing assistant at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. CNAs are involved in the daily care of patients like taking vital signs, feeding, bathing, documenting health issues and much more.

At the same time, she was attending classes on two other days at Central Piedmont Community College. She was preparing to make the big career jump to RN, and the finish line was in sight.

By all accounts, the fourth and final semester would be more taxing. Lawrence doubted she could handle the classes and clinical work while working full-time. But if she cut back to part-time, she’d have difficulty paying her bills and might lose her employer-subsidized health insurance.

“I can’t live if I don’t work,” said the 28-year-old who grew up in Lumberton and moved to Charlotte when she was 16. “I can’t live without insurance.”

Last summer, as she pondered what to do, Lawrence learned about a scholarship that seemed designed especially for her. She applied, and then held her breath.

One day on her unit a happy commotion broke out: “They brought a cake and announced it,” Lawrence said. “I cried. I always cry,” she said with a smile.

The financial award allowed her to work only one day a week but get paid as if she was working three. Novant Health paid her for her work as a CNA, and the scholarship covered two days of “paid study time.”

The scholarship program is sponsored by Charlotte’s two hospital systems, Novant Health and Atrium Health, as part of their ONE Charlotte Health Alliance. Its goal was to provide economic advancement for certified nursing assistants who want to become registered nurses.

The two systems created the program as an upward mobility initiative for employees, particularly those living in neighborhoods identified as priorities by the Charlotte Opportunity Task Force. Charlotte ranks dead last out of the top 50 American cities for social mobility.

The scholarship program addresses two obstacles to advancement frequently cited by CNAs – finances for education and work flexibility. Lawrence was one of the first five scholarship recipients from Novant Health. Atrium Health also named five winners.

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Scholarships can cover up to two years of full tuition and fees for nursing school at community college rates. One scholarship typically amounts to $16,000 per year, but Lawrence needed only one semester. The program also provided a laptop computer, and she got to keep health benefits.

“Nursing school is a ton of work, extremely taxing, and this program offers an extra layer of support,” Lawrence said. “It’s a sweet deal.”

She graduated from CPCC in December. Starting in February, she will work for one year in Presbyterian’s emergency room as part of a residency for new nurses.

After that, she plans to stay with the hospital system. “I can’t see myself working anywhere else,” she said.

‘I love her resiliency’

As part of the scholarship program, Lawrence was paired with a mentor, Katrina King, vice president of nursing and chief nursing officer at Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center.

“She’s been a nurse for a long time,” Lawrence said. “What has rubbed off on me is just her positivity.”

King says the same about Lawrence. “I love her positivity. I love her resiliency. Her dedication is admirable.”

Lawrence and other Novant Health scholarship recipients are among “the best of the best” nursing assistants, King said. “They have positive attitudes. They have lots of compliments from patients on their compassionate care.”

Novant Health plans to grow the program, King said, not only because it helps CNAs advance into higher-paying jobs, but also because it helps the hospital system fill nursing positions.

“They already know our culture. They know our day-to-day operations and how we treat patients,” King said.

King, who was also once a CNA, said she talks to Lawrence about how intimidating it was to transition to nursing. She gives her tips on how to be successful and how to handle stress.

“Taking care of yourself when you’re not at work is terribly important,” King said. “There are high levels of burnout in health care professionals.”

Watching nurses as a child

Lawrence began to think about pursuing a nursing career because of personal experience with the medical system. When she was young, her mother was diagnosed with lupus, which led to chronic kidney disease.

“I was in and out of hospitals (with her) for almost my entire life,” Lawrence said. “You see the doctor, but it’s for like five to 10 minutes ... In my experience, it was always the nurses who were the most hands on and spent the most time with the patients. That really stuck out to me.”

Lawrence became even more interested in nursing when she was diagnosed with a chronic illness years later.

She had graduated from West Mecklenburg High School in 2008 and was attending Davidson College, the liberal arts school north of Charlotte.

A philosophy major, Lawrence was doing well until the fall of her senior year when she began missing classes. She ended up in the emergency room, and she was eventually diagnosed with a chronic illness.

As a result, she dropped out of Davidson just one semester short of graduation.

As she navigated the medical system, working with nurses and doctors to get the right treatment, Lawrence noticed that some nurses are better than others at helping patients.

Once Lawrence’s health became stable, she enrolled in CPCC’s two-year associate degree nursing program. To be eligible, she had to first obtain certification as a nursing assistant.

She worked as a CNA at Presbyterian Medical Center for a few months before starting at CPCC in 2017. Now a graduate, she has to pass the National Council Licensure Examination before she officially becomes a nurse. When she does, she’ll use her personal experience as a guide.

“It’s easier to care for a patient when you’ve kind of been in their shoes as a patient,” Lawrence said. “I model myself after nurses who take the time to treat the whole patient.”

Nurses at Novant Health are redefining healthcare, using their skills and vision to deliver a new patient experience; one that is based on care and compassion while delivering high-quality outcomes. Learn more here.