Without scholarships, student loan debt would have been “insurmountable” for third-generation nurse who feels called to help families

Melissa Varner
February 26, 2024
Ashley Kelly with her Mom and grandmother.
Ashley Kelly with her mother and grandmother.

When Ashley Kelly applied to the Medical University of South Carolina College of Nursing in 2010, she asked herself two questions: "'Will I get in?' and 'If I get in, how will I afford tuition?!'"

A nurse in personal protective equipment stands in front of an interior window holding a sign that reads, ‘Bring snacks.
Kelly worked at patients' bedsides throughout the pandemic.

Both grandmothers and her mother were nurses; her mother was also an MUSC alumna who graduated from the College of Nursing in 1980. "I grew up watching the women in my family give of themselves selflessly as nurses and knew it was my calling, too," Ashley said.

She decided she would just "figure it out" if she was accepted. As it turns out, she didn't have to – she was accepted and awarded a full academic scholarship!

"I'm not sure if anyone knows exactly what it feels like to be given such a gift," Ashley said. "Not only does it validate all your hard work, but it also instills a drive that propels you to not only excel, but also empowers you to create change."

Excel, she did. Ashley graduated with honors from the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in 2012. After graduation, she worked at MUSC for 10 years, helping women with high-risk pregnancies. As a nurse, one of her proudest accomplishments was innovating a "crash cart" for one of the most common childbirth emergencies, post-partum hemorrhage, when a woman continues to bleed heavily after delivery.

"These carts have helped providers have exactly what they need at their fingertips to help save so many new mothers and their babies," she said. She says it's just one way she can pay forward the generosity of the donors who made it possible for her to earn her first nursing degree.

In 2019, Ashley planned to return to the college to advance her career. She applied to the Doctor of Nursing (DNP) program, with the goal of becoming a family nurse practitioner.

Then her world turned upside down. She and her husband decided to divorce. Not long after, Ashley was diagnosed with melanoma.

She deferred her acceptance to MUSC while she recovered from surgery and treatment for skin cancer. In 2021, she felt physically ready to return to the college to pursue her DNP. Financially, she was still unsure how she would afford it.

She was now a single mother, working two, and sometimes three, jobs. Taking out student loans felt much riskier now, at 40, then it did 10 years ago.

"There are a lot of young nurses in the graduate program with me," Ashley said. "If I were younger, I feel like I would be able to maybe take those loans out. But when you're older like I am, it's a little nerve racking."

A bride and her young daughter posed for the camera.
Kelly and her daughter Fiona. Kelly remarried in 2023.

Especially as the mom of a young daughter with big career dreams of her own.

"Fiona likes to put her stethoscope on animals," Ashley said. "So, she wants to be a marine biologist or veterinarian."

Like Ashley, more than 80% of College of Nursing students require financial aid to pursue a nursing career. The college is actively working to grow the number and size of available scholarships so that students can attend nursing school without undue financial hardship.

Until then, students like Ashley must continue to weigh the pros and cons of taking out student loans.

"I still do every semester – I weigh the pros and cons," Ashley said. "Should I take this much out? I've been lucky every year to receive help. So, that's been literally a godsend."

The three scholarships she's been awarded have made it possible for her to continue her path toward an advanced degree. As of now, she's on track to graduate in 2025.

"So, I still have had to take out loans, but it's nowhere near what I would have had to take out if I hadn't received help," Ashley said. "And honestly, if I had to have taken out all these student loans, I probably wouldn't have come. Because I just don't think I can deal with that much that much debt. It would have been insurmountable."