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Meet Crystal Williams: What It Takes to Earn Your MSN During a Pandemic

Walden’s competency-based learning format helped this nurse educator earn a master’s degree in 12 months.

In 2002, Crystal Williams graduated from Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina, with a bachelor’s degree in biology. With her career interests pointing toward nursing, she knew this was just the beginning of her educational journey. What she never could have imagined was that when she was ready to earn a master’s degree, she’d do so during one of the deadliest pandemics in history.1

“I was working in home health, where I’d landed and lived for almost seven years. I completely enjoyed it due to the autonomy, as well as the impact I made with patients by being in their homes. But in the midst of that, I was ready for that educational piece. It was always there, like an underlying desire. So, I woke up one day and told my husband, ‘I think I’m going to get my master’s degree in nursing.’ Two weeks later, I started really thoroughly conducting a search,” she says.


Williams selected Walden University and enrolled in the accredited university’s online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree program, choosing the Nursing Education specialization. Her program began in October 2019. “And then we came upon COVID-19,” she says.

We talked with Williams recently to learn more about her career and education and how she earned her nursing education degree during the COVID-19 pandemic in just 12 months, graduating with a 4.0 GPA.

Walden: Congratulations on your impressive achievement. To start things off, can you tell us about your educational and career path between earning your BS in 2002 and your MSN in 2020?

Williams: After I obtained the Bachelor of Science in biology, I came back home, but I wasn’t fulfilled. I enrolled in a program at Trident Technical College. I obtained that associate degree, and in the midst of that, I sat for my LPN boards, and worked as an LPN for several years. I completed my RN. At that time, I worked in a long-term care setting where I was doing program management development and Medicare assessments. Throughout that program, I was ready for the transition back into the actual clinical environment. I enrolled in Francis Marion University, where I received my Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. From there, I did nurse management, as well as worked as a charge nurse. And from there, I went to home health.

Walden: When it came time to earn a master’s degree, why did you choose Walden’s online MSN program?

Williams: There was just something about Walden. I have to say that the admissions advisors were really informative. They continued to reach out to me about different enrollment dates, and two weeks after completing the application and submitting all of my documents, I was able to start.

Walden: Your MSN degree program offered a choice of completion options: course-based or Tempo Learning®. You chose the latter, which is a self-paced format. Why?

Williams: When one of the Enrollment Specialists told me about the Tempo Learning® program, I was like, perfect. That’ll let me work. And I am a wife and a mother. I have two children who are very active, so therefore I was definitely looking for something that I could do at night and in the morning—nothing where I had to complete coursework by midnight or 11:59 p.m. on a Sunday. I knew that was not going to work for my life.

Walden: In Tempo Learning®, time to completion varies by student. You finished in a year. Was that your original plan?

Williams: My goal initially was to complete the program within a year and a half. But once I got in, and I enjoyed the curriculum and the teachers, and the subject matter experts were so supportive, I got into a rhythm where I would get up early in the morning and I stay up late at night—maybe not the best for my body, but I wanted to get it done.

Walden: What were some of the benefits of the competency-based learning format?

Williams: My academic coach and I would have biweekly calls at 8 a.m. He said, “Let's pick a time and stick with it,” and we did. There were a few weeks where we would alter that, but he made sure he touched base with me biweekly, he made sure that he sent an email and he held me accountable. When we’d talk, he’d ask, “What program objectives or assignments are you planning to get done?” I’d say I’ll do assignments 1, 2, 3, or 4 before our next call, for example, and honestly, it helped me so, so much. His goal was to keep me on track. You know, it's easy to get lost in a program, but that's not what he wanted for me, and that's not what I wanted for myself. So, having him ask, “Hey, I know you’re still working on SN004, how's that going? That assignment could be a little bit tough. Do you need assistance?” That helped a lot.

And what I liked about the competency-based learning programs is that basically I'm using what I have developed from an educational academic standpoint, as well as a work professional standpoint. A lot of the information, scenarios, articles, and assignments that had to be submitted were relatable to incidents on the units, or issues with Medicare billing, or family issues and supporting the caregiver. … The fact that I was able to use my knowledge and my professional skills was just so very comforting to me, and easy to relate to.

Walden: What would you tell a prospective nursing school student who is trying to decide between course-based or competency-based learning?

Williams: Do what works best for you. If you are a starter and a go-getter, competency-based learning is a good fit for you. You also have to have discipline, and be able to say, “No I can't do that; I really need to go do this.” So, discipline is definitely key if you're interested in competency-based learning.

Walden: It really is amazing that you completed your online MSN program so quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of people might have taken the opportunity to re-pace themselves.

Williams: At one point, I considered it. But it was like, there's no better time than now because the kids were doing virtual school, so they were home all day. All sports were canceled, so where we'd have games every Saturday morning, we didn't have those activities. … I could have used the time to exercise, or organize, or all of the above, but I definitely used it to my advantage and that was to spend more time at my computer completing the coursework.

Walden: Did the pandemic affect your MSN degree progress in any way?

Williams: When the COVID announcement came and the shutdown began, I was in the midst of securing my practicum placement at the VA hospital in Charleston. If anybody has any history with the VA, you know how difficult it is to get in with them, and if you miss those paper deadlines, guess what? You're out of it. At that time, I had my nurse preceptor who was going to do my VA clinicals, and she said, “We’ve got to get you in by this time, because they are at the point where they're not allowing students in the hospital because of COVID-19.” Panic mode began. There were some hiccups, but we were able to get my start date where it needed to be.

Walden: What did you do during your practicum placement?

Williams: I became one of the assistant educators and helped with one of the VA programs called “The Transition to Practice.” So that program was for an employee of the VA, either a nurse tech or a phlebotomist—you know, somebody who went back to school and became an RN. They've completed their undergraduate degrees, their studies, and they’ve passed their boards. But it's different when you go from being the nurse tech to being the RN. So, what they do is they put them through this one-year program that offers coaching and nurse mentoring, and I actually worked with those new nurses. We discussed topics ranging from policies and procedures of the facility to how to engage the help of others. I guess the biggest takeaway from it was how to identify yourself as an RN now … you’re a registered nurse, so you have definitely leveled up, and you have the skills that you need to provide care to these patients.

Walden: And did you do that in person?

Williams: Yes, we actually did that in person twice a week. So, at that time, I went from working full time with home health to just part time, because this was very demanding.

Walden: It sounds like it was a year filled with hard work and educational and professional growth. Are there any life lessons you learned along the way?

Williams: I think overall the COVID-19 pandemic changed me as a person. I definitely enjoy family time, and you realize that it's important to have goals and aspirations, but you also have to think about yourself first. I was just telling my husband that I completely lacked self-care for the last, like, seven years. I’ve been doing so much for everyone else and not for myself. I learned to be more aware of self-care, the importance of doing things that make you happy, as well as having goals, but not making the goals so important that they overshadow the little moments.

Walden: Has earning an MSN degree online helped advance your nursing career?

Williams: It actually has impacted my career greatly. I graduated, or completed the MSN program, on October 4, 2020, and started a new job on October 5 with Humana. I'm a nurse preceptor with Humana. I create programs; I assist with the development of programs for the members on topics like congestive heart failure and chronic kidney disease. I also develop processes and flows for member interactions—that’s all teaching, which is what I love to do.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) online degree program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,