Alumni Interview with Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP – Duke University

About Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP: Marla Capes is a Family Nurse Practitioner at Baptist Primary Care in St. Augustine, Florida. Before her current role, she worked as an FNP at Holston Medical Group in Kingsport, Tennessee, where she built her own patient panel, managing care for an average of 20 patients per day. She also has experience as a cardiac ICU nurse, and began her nursing career as a cardiac progressive care nurse in Tallahassee, Florida.

Ms. Capes earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Florida State University in 2010. She graduated from Duke University’s online graduate nursing program in 2014, earning an MSN in the specialty area of Family Nurse Practitioner.

Interview Questions

[] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background in nursing?

[Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP] I graduated from Florida State University with my BSN in 2010. After graduation I began my nursing career as a cardiac progressive care nurse at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital where I worked for two years. We then relocated to Johnson City, Tennessee. During this move and transition, I began the MSN/FNP program with Duke University and also began working as a cardiac ICU nurse at Holston Valley Medical Center. I had four years of cardiac nursing experience when I graduated from Duke in 2014.

After graduation, I became a Family Nurse Practitioner at Holston Medical Group in Kingsport, TN where I gained invaluable experience over the next two years as a new family nurse practitioner. I built my own patient panel and managed many chronic illnesses along with a few acute illnesses a day. I would see an average of 20 patients a day, no more than 23 typically. My husband accepted a new position eight months ago in sunny St. Augustine, FL and we have relocated to Florida. I am now working at Baptist Health family practice and working on building a patient base. I am still seeing acute illnesses and chronic disease management, though now I am seeing more acute illnesses and also more physicals and children.

[] What motivated you to pursue your MSN online? What advantages did you see to online education? Did Duke’s online program meet these expectations?

[Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP] When I was applying to FNP programs, I knew that within six months I was going to be moving to a new state, beginning a new full time job, and planning a wedding. I needed an online program to allow for this flexibility. Attending an online program would also allow for fluctuations in work schedule and completing course work on my schedule.

Duke’s online program was the best because they found clinical practicum sites for me, did not charge out of state tuition, and weekly classes were set up so students could complete the requirements and lectures on their own schedule. Attending Duke online allowed for me to work full time while pursuing my dream at a fantastic school. While my years at Duke were extremely challenging, it allowed me to complete all my expectations and goals.

[] How did Duke University’s online platform enable you to interact with faculty members and classmates? Were courses asynchronous, synchronous, or a combination of both? How often did you interact with faculty, and did you feel that your instructors were accessible to online students?

[Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP] All the courses at Duke were asynchronous with lectures, discussion posts, PowerPoint presentations. The only exception was occasionally a live group presentation or video conference that was at a set time and day. Duke facilitated interaction between students by having many group projects, discussion boards that were interactive and mostly broken into smaller groups of students. Also, the on campus activities were in small group settings.

The professors were extremely accessible by email, phone, and a couple of occasions I even Skyped with professors. They responded quickly to emails. I felt that I had as much access to the faculty at Duke as I did at FSU on campus. In fact, faculty travelled to clinical sites to evaluate students in person and one of the Skype conversations was a mock interview during my last semester with a faculty member. The faculty clearly took their teaching responsibilities very seriously.

[] Duke’s online MSN program requires students to make a limited number of visits to the campus for labs and on-campus intensives. What activities and events were included in these on-campus sessions?

[Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP] While the idea of going to campus seemed daunting at first because there were several three day weekend requirements, I am so glad that the on campus weekends are mandatory. Three of the weekends were during the semester of physical assessment and we practiced on live models one weekend, and learned how to perform a thorough physical assessment in pieces throughout the semester. The final weekend that semester was a complete assessment that was graded on campus. This made me feel so much more confident in what I was learning and that I was applying the information and performing assessments appropriately.

Another weekend was during women’s health and we learned how to insert IUDs, perform thorough breast exams, and other extremely important lessons that cannot easily translate over PowerPoint lectures. These on campus sessions were extremely helpful in applying material, getting to know other students that previously I had only interacted with via discussion boards or group projects, and meeting faculty in person. It made me more confident as I was developing NP assessment skills. These weekends incorporated throughout the program ended up being my favorite part of the program.

[] What were the major pros and cons of pursuing your graduate nursing degree online? What challenges did you encounter throughout your completion of the online program, and how did you address them? On the flip side, what did you enjoy most about completing your MSN degree online?

[Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP] One major pro for pursuing my MSN online was being able to access the material and complete assignments on my schedule without having to worry about juggling my work with school schedule. Without that flexibility I would not have been able to become a Nurse Practitioner.

However, a con of online schooling I experienced was a feeling of isolation at times. Not being around my peers and only interacting via discussion boards was a bit lonesome because of not being around my peers. In my BSN program, it was easy to become close to classmates because of the constant interaction in person that I had with my fellow Nole Nurses. Also, being surrounded by people in my daily life that were not also pursuing advanced degrees was challenging at times to stay focused and disciplined. It was also challenging to not be able to raise my hand in class to ask questions, but rather I needed to write down my questions and send an email after I finished watching the lecture.

Online learning was an adjustment and I learned how to group my questions into an emails. Also, through the on campus sessions and discussion posts over the five semesters, I made a few friends in the program and it was easier to stay focused knowing I wasn’t the only full time working nurse pursuing their goal of becoming an NP.

[] Clinical practicums are a major component of graduate nursing education. Can you briefly describe how Duke University handles clinical placements for online students? Can you elaborate on your experiences in your clinical practicum rotations and what were some key takeaways from your rotations that you feel helped you successfully make the transition from being a registered nurse to being a health care provider?

[Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP] The fact that Duke finds the clinical practice sites for students is one of the top reasons I wanted to attend there. Since I had just moved to the area, I had no connections to primary doctors and did not know anyone who I could call to be my preceptors throughout the program. I cannot stress how much of a burden this took off me. Duke found both the clinical sites and the specific preceptors and arranged it all with the caveat that a clinical site could be up to two hours away from where I lived. However, if a student found their own site that was closer, as long as the site met Duke’s requirements then they could change to a closer area.

My first two rotations were both in family practice, one rotation in the third semester and one in the fourth semester. Each of these were for 104 clinical hours. The fifth semester was both pediatrics (104 hours) and OBGYN (104 hours). This was a very challenging semester given the amount of clinical hours, full course load, and the final weekend trip to campus for women’s health. The sixth and final semester was full time clinical in family practice, 400 hours total. This final clinical is called residency and was really great at transitioning into how it feels to be a practitioner. This is because at each rotation I learned more about the work flow, the process of narrowing down a diagnosis or managing chronic illnesses, and communicating with patients and their family members. Each preceptor had a different style, and it was nice to see the differences to learn how I wanted to practice. In residency, I was able to actually choose medications and lab work, order them, and see the patients independently. Clinical practicums are an incredible learning experience. The more clinical hours that are built into an NP program, the more opportunity for students to learn.

[] What advice would you give students just starting Duke’s online MSN program? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are just starting or considering an online MSN program, whether it be at Duke or another institution?

[Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP] At the beginning of Duke’s program, I would reach out to the assigned academic advisor to touch base because this resource can be helpful throughout the next two years. For Duke’s program specifically, plan for the weekends on campus well in advance by arranging work, travel, and hotel. I also would take the time to familiarize with Sakai, Duke’s online platform.

For students entering online programs, I would emphasize the importance of being organized, knowing the syllabi and what is expected throughout the semester. I would have a set schedule for tackling the course work and not cram or skip weeks. There is far too much information to cram information in Duke’s program, or any NP program I suspect. I would know before starting if the school will find clinical sites for students, because Duke is one of the only schools that actually does. I would weigh the cost and feasibility of travelling to campus if required. Some schools it is never required to go to campus, however I found the experience invaluable.

I would compare total clinical hours as the more clinical hours throughout the program, the more experience students get. I would also look at the school’s percentage of graduates that pass national boards on their first attempt. Regardless of which online MSN program, I would emphasize the importance of having a support system in place that will allow the student to flourish and succeed in the program.

[] What type of support services does Duke offer online students? Did the school offer career services, and if so, did you use them and find them helpful?

[Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP] Duke assigns an academic advisor for every MSN student prior to beginning and I found mine very helpful over the course of the program. She was knowledgeable, answered emails promptly, and it was a comfort to know I could always ask her questions as they arose. Faculty also are very understanding in the cases of emergencies.

Thank you, Ms. Capes, for participating in our alumni interview series, and sharing your experience as an online FNP student!

About the Author: Jake Ravani is an Editor at, and has been writing about educational trends and online degree programs since 2010. He earned his BA in English from UC Santa Cruz.