For years, Bryn Conley had her sights set on becoming a registered nurse. In 2018, she began her path to becoming an RN in Cape Fear Community College’s associate degree nursing program. But the demands of being a full-time student, worker and single mom soon took a toll.

“I just found it really hard to juggle all those things,” Conley said. As much as it hurt, she had to put her degree on hold.

In 2019 she accepted a position as a certified nurse assistant in the emergency room at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Inspired by the nurses around her in the ER, her desire to continue her nursing education still flickered inside her, fueling the dream that she wouldn’t give up on.

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Discovering a passion for nursing

A self-described tomboy, Conley didn’t always see herself going into nursing. As a kid, she perceived it as a “girlier” job than she wanted (she laughs about this now) and thought she’d pursue a career as a psychologist. With an interest in mental health advocacy and a passion for helping the underserved homeless population, she longed to help the community in a fulfilling way.

In the fall of 2017, Bryn gave birth to her daughter, Carter. It was her labor and delivery nurse at New Hanover Regional Medical Center who piqued her interest in nursing by explaining the career as a powerful, hands-on way to help people in the community, in all walks of life.

“She was trying to explain to me how I could do nursing and take different routes and help people in different ways than I had originally thought that I'd be able to,” Conley said.

When Carter was just 3 months old, in early 2018, Conley enrolled in the associate degree nursing program at Wilmington’s Cape Fear Community College. After her first semester, she had to take a step back, forced to prioritize.

The Novant Health Upward Mobility RN Educational Assistance Fund

The Novant Health Upward Mobility RN Educational Assistance Fund was launched in Charlotte in 2018 to support scholars in achieving their dreams to advance from certified nursing assistants (CNAs) to registered nurses (RNs).

In 2022, the scholarship expanded to New Hanover Regional Medical Center, made possible through the Novant Health Foundation and the Dan and Sheila Saklad Foundation. The scholarship fund memorializes Wilmington community member Sheila Saklad, a former nurse who passed away in 2020 following complications with multiple myeloma. Contributed by Sheila’s husband, Dan Saklad, the $400,000 fund honors her passion for championing the field of nursing.

In addition to helping team members climb the ladder and improve their station in life, the program also addresses the nationwide nursing shortage.

“This program opens up so many opportunities — literally changing the trajectory of people’s lives, by helping them move from just making a living wage to doubling or tripling their income,” said Erika Robinson, people and culture specialist for Novant Health’s pipeline and recruitment programs. “And in this way, we are also changing their children's lives and generations to come.”

Achieving a long-time goal

In 2021, during her second year working as a CNA at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, Conley decided it was time to try again. She started over in the associate degree nursing program at Cape Fear Community College. Being a full-time nursing student, health care worker and single mom made for a maxed-out schedule with little time for sleep and studying. With three 12-hour work shifts each week, plus three days a week of classes, and one day each week of clinical rotations soon approaching, Conley began to fear her career goal was impossible.

A glimmer of hope ignited one day at work when she learned about a scholarship for CNAs wanting to earn their RN license: The Upward Mobility RN Educational Assistance Fund.

She took a chance and applied. One month later, she found out she would be a recipient. It was a life-changing moment.

“And it was just awesome,” Conley said.

Through the scholarship, she was able to reduce her working hours to two 12-hour shifts at the hospital each week instead of three – without sacrificing any of her paycheck or benefits. This gave her an entire extra day each week for studying, classwork and even time for self-care.

“It made that whole second year so much more possible,” Conley said. “I was able to switch from night shift to day shift. And my sleep schedule got back on track. My grades were better. I spent more time being a good mom with my daughter.”

The scholarship also paid for Conley’s remaining year of classes to obtain her associate degree in nursing, including her textbooks.

“It made a world of difference,” she said.

With perseverance, the scholarship and support from the nurses and medical professionals surrounding her, Conley achieved her goal. She finished her degree in June and is now proud to officially tout the title of RN.

Finding her best fit

Even though Conley’s job title and role changed from CNA to RN, she knew early on that she wanted to stay in the ER. While she loves working with patients, it was her teammates and manager who made her feel like she had found her best fit.

“If I was having a tough day as a mom, a tough day in school, or I didn't do great on a test, everybody jumped in,” she said. “That's why, when I went to apply for a job, I knew I wasn't going to leave the department. I was like, ‘I'm not applying anywhere else. This is the only place I want to be.’”

Conley’s teammates took a personal interest in her nursing coursework and supported her through her journey. She was grateful for their guidance as they showed her how her work tasks related to the material she was learning in her textbooks.

“They really helped me use all my work time as hands-on ‘study time,’” Conley said. “They’d say, ‘Oh, come look at this. This is what you're learning about.’”

Looking into the future

As an RN, Conley said that every day she discovers new ways that she can apply her interest in psychology as she cares for patients.


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“All the stuff that I wanted to do with psychology and community service comes into play as a nurse,” she said. “You provide medical care to ICU-level patients, children and adults and everybody in between. It's never boring. There's always something new; it's like a puzzle every day.”

When Conley returns home after a shift, 5-year-old Carter is intrigued with what her mom does, and wants to be a nurse, too. But a nurse who wears a crown.

“She is a sparkly fairy Disney princess,” Conley said.

Looking ahead, Conley said she’s not done growing.

“I'd like to go back to school, do my bachelor's and then I'd like to get a master's-level nurse practitioner degree,” she said. “I would like to stay in the hospital. Everybody has become like a family. All these people, they all kind of adopted me and made the single mom nursing journey while working full time possible.”