Marci Caceres had a dream she didn’t think could ever come true. She came to the United States as a child when her parents emigrated from Guatemala. She grew up wanting to go into health care yet knowing she couldn’t get a work permit.

When President Obama signed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), it changed nearly everything. And a second big break would come her way later: She received a scholarship from Novant Health that helped pay for her nursing school and give her the final boost she needed to become a registered nurse.

Novant Health created the Upward Mobility RN Scholarship program in 2018 to support internal advancement and improve the financial well-being of its team members.

“I am so blessed,” said Caceres, 26. “That scholarship put everything in place. Without it, this would have been very difficult.”

A ‘Dreamer’ gets her shot

Upward mobility scholarship helps 'Dreamer' become a nurse
Marci Caceres

Ever since high school, Caceres knew she wanted to work in the medical field. “Obviously, your dream is always to be a doctor, but I knew at an early age that I would not be able to attend college because I wasn't born here. Before I graduated high school in 2012, they passed DACA, which allowed me to go to school and to work. (People who fall under the DACA act are often referred to as “Dreamers” in the U.S.)  But I still paid out-of-state tuition. I had a scholarship offer in high school, but I was not allowed to receive it because I wasn't born here.”

Carceres, though, is not easily dissuaded. She lived with her parents to save money and worked to put herself through ECPI University. She earned an associate degree in health and science and became a certified medical assistant in 2016 – the same year she started work at Novant Health OB/GYN Urgent Care in Charlotte.

She’s a phlebotomist and an electrocardiogram tech – which is important since she wants to become a cardiac nurse. The things that might give many of us pause – dealing with blood, wounds and abscesses – are Caceres’ favorite part of her job. She gets to see a lot of that in urgent care.

Medical assistants perform administrative functions, such as answering phones, scheduling and completing insurance paperwork, in a hospital or doctor’s office. On the clinical side, they prepare patients for examinations, change dressings, remove sutures and work with medical equipment such as X-rays. Being a medical assistant is one entry point to a career in health care – or it can be a career itself.

Carceres is always looking to take on more responsibility. She often translated for her parents when she was young. Naturally, she got certified as a bilingual medical interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients, which she did along with her other responsibilities.

“I knew I wanted to be as close to the patient as possible,” she said. “So, I applied for nursing school at CPCC (Central Piedmont Community College).” And she won the Novant Health Upward Mobility RN Scholarship.

Promoting from within

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 and medical assistants who want to become registered nurses.

The program is an upward mobility initiative designed to improve financial well-being among team members, particularly those living in priority ZIP codes identified in the Charlotte Opportunity Task Force. Charlotte ranks dead last out of the top 50 American cities for social mobility.

Nissen mug
Nikki Nissen

“The Upward Mobility nursing scholarship supports Novant Health team members’ professional advancement, removing barriers for their success,” said Nikki Nissen, vice president for clinical operations and chief nursing officer for the Novant Health Medical Group clinics. “Programs like this assist with overcoming barriers that often stand in the way of pursuing higher education. And as our team members climb, it creates a ripple effect for their families’ long-term prospects, spurring even greater intergenerational mobility.”

Nissen noted that she herself received assistance as she trained and studied to be become a nurse. Given that, she said, “I am particularly thrilled to see two of our team members take full advantage of this opportunity to advance and grow their careers.”  

The scholarships provide up to two years of upfront coverage of tuition and fees for an approved nursing program, leading to licensure as an RN. Participating team members are offered the flexibility of working a reduced schedule to focus on their challenging academic load. Team members in the Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Coastal areas are eligible.

“That's one of the beautiful parts of the program,” said Carceres. “I only had to work 32 hours a week to be considered full-time.”

Carceres has faced one barrier after another, but she is nearing the finish line. She graduates from CPCC on May 12 and then takes her state boards. She’ll return to Novant Health OB/GYN Urgent Care before beginning a cardiac nursing residency in July at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.

The residency program allows RNs to rotate through a number of different departments – from labor and delivery to orthopedics – to determine which one they’re best suited for. Carceres already knows she wants the cardiac track.

A new day

Brittany Reed, another former medical assistant who received one of the scholarships, is in the middle of her RN residency, a Novant Health program that helps smooth the transition to nursing. She relished her old job and “could have done it forever,” she said.

Reed worked as a medical assistant at Novant Health for 13 years – mostly at Novant Health Senior Care – before becoming an LPN. The following year, she started the LPN-to-RN bridge program, which had been her longtime dream. Her manager recommended her for the upward mobility scholarship.

Her next rotation will be at Novant Health Charlotte Orthopedic Hospital. “Every 12 weeks in this yearlong residency program, you can rotate to another unit. Or – if you find your calling – you can opt out at six months and stay in one of the units you floated to. It’s been a great learning opportunity for me as a new RN.”

Reed and Caceres love that their new jobs will involve them even more in patient care. “You are making decisions that benefit the patient based on your judgment and knowledge of their condition,” Caceres said.  

Reed appreciates the opportunities Novant Health has given her. “It’s been a blessing,” she said. “Ever since I got my first job as a medical assistant, I’ve been given opportunities to grow. All my managers have seen my work ethic and put me in roles that would help me advance.”

Caceres may be about to earn her RN licensure, but she isn’t through learning. She plans to return to school for her bachelor’s degree this fall and, one day, earn a master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner at Novant Health.

Working full time and being a full-time student hasn’t been easy, but Caceres is used to doing hard things. “I came here when I was little, and I know the sacrifices my parents made,” she said. “We came here with a dream. They taught us to build a good foundation for whatever future you want.”