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She's No. 1: Erica Coward Inaugural Graduate of MSN Online Program

Erica Coward with her mom at USC graduation

Erica with her mom, Marilyn, at graduation

As she prepared to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Erica Coward was still weighing her options for what to do next. Her mother, Marilyn, had the perfect suggestion for her only child.

"I didn't know where I was going, but I became interested in mental health during my senior year," Coward said. "I was looking at becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner. I was like, 'How can I do that?' And my mom was on the USC website and said, 'Hey, there's this new program they have that's leadership. You should apply.'"

A little more than a year later, in August 2016, Coward became the first graduate of USC's online Master of Science in Nursing in Organizational Leadership degree program. After graduation, she started working for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health as a registered nurse in psychiatry before changing jobs in September 2017. She now works at Palmetto Health in psychiatric nursing.

"As the first graduate of this program, I have utilized the concepts, theories and philosophies from the courses to positively impact the lives of my patients," Coward said. "While this program primarily focuses on establishing and achieving organizational goals, it teaches you to incorporate knowledge gained from experience, evidence-based practice, outcome measurement, risk management, quality improvement metrics and healthcare economics into clinical practice.

"As the program progressed, I was able to develop as a leader through the discussion of various strategies, conceptual models and theories. Overall, the content of the courses and the practicum experience has contributed to my success as a healthcare provider. I cannot wait to explore the opportunities that await."

Charting Her Career Path

USC online MSN graduate Erica Coward

Coward's initial interest in working in the healthcare industry came when she attended an Emory University program for high school students during her sophomore year.

"It was mostly for healthcare, so it was focused on doctors, psychiatry and nursing," Coward said. "So, I was like, 'Wait, this is way cool.' I got to visit a hospital and see autopsies and surgeries and stuff like that. It was so diverse. I could be a baby nurse tomorrow and then do trauma the next day. I thought it was good when you don't know what you want to do, per se, but you know you want to help people, and you know you want to get your hands dirty.

"But now I do the administration route, so it's more like papers, writing, meeting people and wearing nice clothes. It's helping the organization from the top and helping people in every department, working with the people and meeting the people."

Coward, who grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina Upstate in May of 2015. She got right back to school, online, three months later. Because she was not working while she earned her MSN in Organizational Leadership online, she was able to double up on courses and finish in just one year.

Even though her experience was atypical because she wasn't working, her fellow students who were working and going to school raved about the convenience.

"I could tell that, for my classmates with full-time jobs, it worked out well for them," Coward said. "Like, if you're a night shift nurse, you can get your papers done while you're at work and then relax at home. You log in at three in the morning or eight in the morning with the flexibility."

However, Coward still got the experience of balancing school and the rest of the things in her life, like traveling, attending concerts and shopping.

"You definitely have to be able to motivate yourself because when you go to class, you're accountable," she said. "If you don't show up for class, you're going to get points deducted from your final grade. But online, you have to know, 'Okay, I can do this, but then I have to be online by 8 p.m. and finish my work by 12.' Life catches up with you, and you're like, 'Well, I'll do it this weekend.' But then you have work for four other classes, and it's not going to be quality work.

"I would say you have to be able to motivate yourself and be very passionate about what you're learning about because it's a lot of work. It's a lot of reading, research and writing, so if you don't really care about what you're learning about and find it interesting, you're not going to put your all into it. "

Preparing to Lead

Several of the courses in the online MSN in Organizational Leadership program helped Coward approach things from a different perspective. Integrative Process in Nursing Administration (NURS 742) and Research Methods for Nursing (NURS 741) were two of her favorite courses.

"I like to read and research and justify how I came to a conclusion. You can pull out the source and say, 'This is what they said; this is the evidence.' Even the first course is about leadership and theory … I apply that now, because you can tell which one of your managers have experience and what kind of leadership style they abide by. I kind of psychoanalyze everything now."

With her love of school, Coward is already planning to go back for more education after getting some valuable work experience under her belt.

"I'm thinking Ph.D. -- maybe in research," she said. "I'm really into school. My mom has a lot of degrees; I guess that's where I get it from. If I could go back to school right now, I'd be in school. Plus, all of my classmates say it's so hard going back after being off. I don't want to give myself too much time to get settled. Every weekend I'm like, 'Wait, I don't have homework?' I don't want to get into that habit."

Wherever her career path leads her, Coward will always enjoy being able to say she was the first graduate of USC's MSN in Organizational Leadership online program.

"I'm really kind of shy," she said. "When I know I'm good at something and can make a difference, I break out of my shell."

Learn more about the University of South Carolina's online MSN program.

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