Alumni Interview with Paula Coffman, DNP, APRN, FNP – University of South Alabama

About Paula Coffman, DNP, APRN, FNP: Paula Coffman is a Family Nurse Practitioner who works for the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Kentucky Hospital. She currently practices in the spine and pediatric clinic, where she cares for patients with a wide range of spinal injuries and abnormalities. Dr. Coffman started her career as an FNP at JoyRich Health Care Centers in Kentucky, and worked at the University of Kentucky Hospital as an RN for a number of years before earning her MSN.

Dr. Coffman holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Pensacola Christian College in Florida. In 2014, she earned her MSN through the University of South Alabama’s online graduate nursing program, specializing as an FNP. She returned to USA to complete her doctorate, and graduated from their online DNP program in July 2016.

Interview Questions:

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

[Paula Coffman, DNP, APRN, FNP] I attended Pensacola Christian College from 2006 to 2010 where I earned my BSN. I went to University of South Alabama (USA) from 2012 to 2014 where I earned my MSN as a Family Nurse Practitioner. I then continued my education at USA and completed my DNP in July of 2016.

I started working at the University of Kentucky Hospital in 2008 as a nursing care tech. I started my first RN job at the University of Kentucky working on a medical-surgical floor. After six months of working on a medical-surgical floor, I transferred to work in the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit. I learned how to care for patients with traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, brain tumor and other various cranial and spine abnormalities. I worked full time as a RN while obtaining my MSN.

I started my first job as a Family Nurse Practitioner working in primary care at JoyRich Health Care Centers in February of 2015. I gained experience caring for mostly adult patients with various diagnoses.

I then took a job working for the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Kentucky Hospital in August of 2015. I currently work in the spine and pediatric clinic for the Department of Neurosurgery. I care for patients with spinal stenosis, disc herniations, spine tumors, non-surgical spine fractures, and spinal cord injuries. I perform the pre-operative assessment and planning and the post-operative assessment and management. I assist the surgeons in their clinic, in addition to having my own clinic. For my clinics, I will see on average 12 patients per day.

[] What motivated you to pursue your MSN and DNP online? What advantages did you see to online education? Did the online program at the University of South Alabama meet these expectations?

[Paula Coffman, DNP, APRN, FNP] I desired to attend a university with an online program because I loved my RN job and did not want to relocate for my masters and doctorate. With a busy schedule, online classes were more conducive to my lifestyle. I needed a program that did not require a long commute to a campus 1-2 times a week. Another big motivation of the USA program was the high passing rate of certification exams. The advantages of an online education give you flexibility to work in the nursing environment of your choice, allow you to have more family time, and give you time to complete homework and classwork at a convenient time. I had a great experience with the online program at USA.

[] How did USA’s online platform enable you to interact with faculty members and classmates? Were lectures asynchronous (prerecorded), synchronous (live), or a combination of both? How often did you interact with faculty, and did you feel that your instructors were accessible to online students?

[Paula Coffman, DNP, APRN, FNP] The USA professors were very available to their students and truly wanted them to succeed. They were very prompt to reply to emails and telephone calls. Both the professors from the core NP classes and the professors of the research classes were eager to help and assist when needed. They were also reasonable to extend homework due dates, whether it be due to bad internet connection or needing more time.

The Sakai website was user friendly and easy to navigate. I was able to easily interact with my classmates and professors. There were group discussions that allowed the students to interact and work together. On the website, there was a section for questions, the professors were prompt to answer the questions and the students were also able to comment. Lectures were a combination of asynchronous and synchronous. Many of the lectures were read on the website and text books were frequently used. The live lectures were more utilized during my core NP classes and were very helpful. The professors were creative in their teaching techniques to give the students the best learning experience.

[] The University of South Alabama’s online graduate nursing 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?

[Paula Coffman, DNP, APRN, FNP] For the Family Nurse Practitioner track, we had one on-campus intensive that occurred during the semester we started clinical. The intensive was well organized and informative in preparing for clinical. They lasted approximately four days. They had hands-on experience classes for suturing, punch biopsy, drainage of abscesses, pap smears, and other clinic procedures. They also provided practical knowledge on prescribing medications, coding, and handling sensitive situations. The location of the intensive was close to nice hotels, restaurants, and shopping, making it easy for family members to come along.

I would say the on-campus sessions enhanced the program since it gave us hands-on experience and education on how to be a family nurse practitioner. It also allowed us to meet our instructor and classmates in person. I considered a one-time intensive a pro to the online program. Many institutions require several visits to their campus. Living several hundred miles away would make it difficult to travel to campus several times. I was indifferent to the requirement of an on-campus intensive.

[] 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 and DNP online?

[Paula Coffman, DNP, APRN, FNP] The major pros of a graduate online nursing degree were flexibility and convenience in completing homework and assignments, and not travelling to and from campus.

The major cons of a graduate online nursing degree were taking tests online, not speaking face to face with instructors, and bad weather affecting the internet connection. One of the challenges of the online program was taking tests. There were times when I had poor internet connection that would affect me finishing the test. My professors were very understanding and allowed me to always finish my tests.

What I enjoyed the most about completing my MSN and DNP online at USA was the fact I had great professors throughout the nursing program that taught multiple classes. As a side note, I had a fantastic study partner during the program, and we would Skype and study together before each test.

[] Clinical practicums are a major component of graduate nursing education. Can you briefly describe how the University of South Alabama 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?

[Paula Coffman, DNP, APRN, FNP] For clinical practicums, I had to find my clinical sites independently. I was able to use my internal medicine clinical site for two clinic rotations. USA did send a list of all of the institutions they have contracts with, which could be helpful for students. I would recommend finding clinic sites as early as possible. If a clinic site is found early, I would touch base every couple of months to make sure your spot is safe. I had my OB/GYN clinic site and preceptor set up early on in my clinical semester. When it came time to start clinical, my spot was used by another student. Thankfully, I was able to find another preceptor. I would also recommend using your resources where you work to find preceptors. Many physicians and APRNs are more eager to precept a student they already know.

I had a great clinical experience, our clinical requirements were completed in four semesters. I mostly did my clinical with Nurse Practitioners; however, I had the opportunity to work with a Nurse Midwife and a Pediatrician. My first rotation of 60 clinic hours was in a primary care office with a Nurse Practitioner. I saw patients of all ages and learned the basics of prescribing medications, ordering labs, and reviewing imaging. I then did OB/GYN clinical with a nurse midwife for 90 clinic hours and Pediatric clinical with a Pediatrician for an additional 90 hours. I did over 50 pap smears and learned how to treat and manage routine gynecological problems. I completed 90 clinic hours in a primary care/internal medicine clinic working with a Nurse Practitioner. I learned how to manage Diabetes, Hypertension, and other diagnoses. My last clinic rotation was for 180 clinic hours and I completed those hours in the primary care/internal medicine clinic.

I would recommend future students to learn all they can during clinical. Write down diagnoses you do not understand to study later and ask questions to your preceptor. Be early to each clinical and stay as organized as possible. I had an easy transition when going from a RN to APRN. My first job as an APRN was at the clinic site I completed my internal medicine hours. I was familiar with the staff and many of the patients. When transitioning from RN to APRN, I would recommend working with a patient population you enjoy and being familiar with the documentation system the facility utilizes.

[] What advice would you give students just starting USA’s online MSN or DNP program? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are just starting or considering an online graduate nursing program, whether it be at the University of South Alabama or another institution?

[Paula Coffman, DNP, APRN, FNP] I highly recommend a registered nurse advancing his/her nursing career. There are so many more options and avenues to work in as a nurse practitioner that you do not have as a registered nurse. I had a fantastic experience with the online program at USA. I was able to work as a RN in conjunction to completing my MSN and DNP. I would recommend students to organize their time wisely and make the appropriate work schedule changes to give enough time for clinical. I would also recommend future students researching institutions passing rate of certification exams. USA has a high certification exam passing rate and I felt prepared to take boards.

Thank you, Ms. Coffman, for participating in our alumni interview series, and sharing your experience as an online nursing 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.