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Worcester State MSN Graduate Virginia Chacon-Lopez Transitions from Pediatric Nursing to Public Health

Growing up in Westborough, Massachusetts with the challenge of uncontrolled asthma gave Virginia Chacon-Lopez an early appreciation for the medical professionals who handled her care. AfterWorcester State MSN Graduate Virginia Chacon-Lopez graduating from Assabet Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School she joined their ranks, becoming a licensed practical nurse in 2013.

Chacon-Lopez enrolled in the LPN-to-BS program at Worcester State University four years later. She worked in outpatient pediatric medicine full time—plus overtime—while studying for her bachelor’s degree, “much to the dismay of my professors and advisors,” she laughed. “But I graduated with honors, so it all worked out!”

She completed the program and became a registered nurse in 2020, then briefly served as an inpatient pediatric psychiatry RN. “I had minored in psychology, and I love working with kids,” she said.

The sense of accomplishment she felt was soon eclipsed by the extreme challenges she and other RNs faced during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Working short staffed was becoming increasingly draining,” she remembered. “I was becoming more and more burnt out.”

While Chacon-Lopez had always enjoyed caring for young patients and their families, being on the frontlines of a historic health care crisis gave her a different perspective on how she could help others. Later that year, she decided to step away from bedside nursing and return to Worcester State, enrolling in the online Master of Science in Nursing – Public & Population Health program.

Her new goal was to serve communities rather than just one patient at a time, and she achieved it before graduating in May 2023. During her final term in the program, she started a position as a public health nurse for the town of Needham’s Public Health Division.

Chacon-Lopez later learned that she won the job over two more seasoned applicants who were already working in the field. She believes her MSN education gave her the edge. “People just take [you] more seriously if they see that you’re devoted to your career,” she said, “and you’re going for more professional development.”

Embracing Public Health

When Chacon-Lopez began the online MSN program, she was excited to dive into the broad range of coursework it had to offer. She liked being able to study the clinical and administrative aspects of nursing and how the big picture of population health data tells the story of individual communities.

Learning evidence-based practice for public health also allowed her to build on her nursing skills in a different way, as she gained knowledge in areas such as policy, epidemiology, and informatics. Even the classes in genetics and geonomics that she found challenging were doable with support from her professors. “If I needed help, they were there,” she recalled.

Chacon-Lopez says the respect faculty showed her during the program addressed any doubts she had about her ability to overcome obstacles. “We are our own harshest critics, especially in school,” she mused. “But in our MSN program, they treat you like an equal and they talk to you like an equal, because they want to work with you.”

Good time management and a few boundaries she put into place outside of school set her up for academic success as well. “I could dedicate certain hours of the day to do schoolwork and plan around that,” she explained. “It’s nice to have that work-life balance, and I could tell my family, ‘Everybody be quiet. I’m going to do homework for three hours,'” she smiled.

Another form of support she valued during the program was the faculty’s commitment to helping students get the right field experience for their career goals.

Working with one of her professors, she secured a practicum placement with the Board of Health in Medfield, Massachusetts, and a knowledgeable preceptor in public health nurse Brenda Healy. In addition to the strong guidance and wisdom Healy provided, she became a mentor to Chacon-Lopez and recommended her for the job in Needham.

“[She] has become a wonderful colleague of mine and a collaborator,” Chacon-Lopez said, noting that Healy is still part of her professional life. “We frequently speak and check in to make sure we’ve got our ducks in a row and bounce ideas off each other,” she said. “She’s awesome.”

Gaining Confidence Through Research and Practice

Chacon-Lopez completed both of her required practicums for the degree in Medfield, developing projects with Healy that impacted a range of vulnerable populations in the area. She appreciated being able to work on issues she was passionate about.

“Spotting elder abuse and identifying it was something I was inspired to research, based on a circumstance that occurred during my practicum,” she remembered.

Chacon-Lopez also created a mental health resource list based on a local needs assessment she conducted. “It was definitely an eye-opening experience,” she said.

“A lot of people didn’t know where to turn to, or who to speak with, so I felt it was appropriate to look into this,” she continued. “Medfield and other communities have a lot more resources than the community members living in them realize.”

In addition, Chacon-Lopez says the practicum gave her an up-close look at the direct applications of her MSN coursework in public health administration.

“When I started the program, I didn’t realize that there was so much responsibility as far as managing money, especially in government,” she said. Learning more about the financial aspects of health services development—including how to identify potential funding streams, write grant proposals, and collect the data needed to validate those requests—gave her expertise she now uses on the job.

Improving her presentation and public speaking abilities in the process has been beneficial, too. “You have to be able to stand up and defend why your department needs this money,” she said. “Now I feel pretty confident that I have the skills to make a good case.”

Chacon-Lopez will get the chance to be a preceptor herself this summer when she hosts her first Worcester State online MSN student. “I’m excited to give back to a program that has set me up for success,” she beamed.

Serving the Community and Saving Lives

Chacon-Lopez now lives in Framingham, Massachusetts. She loves the balance of autonomy and collaboration she enjoys working nearby for the town of Needham, where implementing evidence-based programs, conducting outreach events, and planning new health initiatives is all in a day’s work.

“You end up being the resource for a lot of people,” she said, which includes other RNs.

“I help school nurses figure out their guidelines with COVID-19 and running flu clinics,” she shared, offering one example of how her office supports K-12 campuses dealing with a range of health-related issues. “We are like a one-stop shop. They can just come to us, and we tend to guide them,” she confirmed.

Chacon-Lopez has also played a pivotal role in Needham’s Community Naloxone Program that aims to reduce opioid-related deaths, whether from prescription abuse or potent street drugs such as heroin. “We have started with canvassing the best places in town to put a SAMBOX,” she said, “which is essentially a first-aid kit to help reverse opioid overdoses.”

Each kit will contain the lifesaving nasal spray Narcan™ which can revive an overdose victim or halt the process within three minutes. Chacon-Lopez helped secure state funding for the local program. She will maintain the supply, train volunteers, and provide information about opioid addiction. “I want to bring awareness, education and resources for everyone, not just those who use opioids or other substances,” she shared. “It’s a group effort.”

Chacon-Lopez loves this aspect of her work and appreciates the platform that earning an MSN has given her to showcase her skillset or move up if she desires. “If I wanted to work even for the state government or the national government, I do have that option,” she said.

Most of all, she likes the respect she now receives from first responders and others in the community who see the positive impact her work has on local citizens. “It’s nice to have more recognition,” she admitted, after the stress and burnout she previously experienced as a nurse.

Chacon-Lopez says studying online at Worcester State was a great way to explore her potential, and she’s considering a doctorate next. She encourages all RNs who are curious about their options beyond the bedside to keep learning and growing in the field.

“Trust me,” she said, citing her seamless transition to public health nursing. “There are more opportunities for us.”

Learn more about the online Master of Science in Nursing – Public & Population Health program at Worcester State University.


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