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CU Nursing student Kelsey Connolly recieves the DAISY Award.

Finding Strength in Nursing

Parents’ Diagnoses Inspires Student to Pursue a Nursing Career

Written by Molly Smerika on March 12, 2024

Kelsey Connolly admits she went through a quarter-life crisis during the pandemic.

She wasn’t working her job at her physical therapy clinic because COVID-19 shut everything down. Her mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019 – just before the pandemic.

A few months later, her dad was diagnosed with ALS.

“I just had no idea what career path I wanted to take, but I knew I needed to be something that allowed me to help people,” she says. Connolly spoke with a few nurses, including her therapist and mentor -- a psychiatric nurse practitioner -- and decided to try nursing.

She got her Certified Nursing Assistant license and started a job at UCHealth on the cardiology medical floor.

“That job changed my life,” she says. “I’d always felt like an outsider in other careers – sort of scattered and inefficient. It only took one day working the floor to realize that ‘This is where my people have been, this is where I belong’.”

“I hit the ground running at the hospital, but I loved the chaos and the support and guidance I received from my coworkers made it exciting, not intimidating,” she says. “There are so many opportunities to form deep and meaningful relationships with both patients and coworkers and building trust first was the foundation for every successful partnership.”

Connolly decided to apply to the University of Colorado College of Nursing at Anschutz Medical Campus.


Kelsey Connolly as a toddler with her parents.

“My parents have always been supportive, and that didn’t change when I told them I wanted to pursue nursing. My dad, pragmatic as always, wisely suggested that I should have a backup option in case I didn’t get in,” she says. “I (respectfully) told him not this time – I’m applying to CU Nursing and I’m getting in.”

Connolly says she struggled through her undergraduate classes at CU Boulder where she double majored in psychology and integrated physiology. Before applying to CU Nursing, she took online classes to boost her prerequisite GPA.

“I felt like I didn’t do my best when I was younger, I felt directionless, and that made it difficult to prioritize school. I wanted to prove to myself that I had what it takes to get accepted to CU Nursing,” she says. “Waiting to hear back from admissions was terrifying. I was lucky enough to have an incredible network of friends and family who supported me through the whole ordeal. Looking back, I see how that process reflects the spirit of the nursing profession, you need your team.”

Relying on Friends for Support and Helping Them in Return

Connolly enrolled in CU Nursing’s Traditional (TRAD) BS in Nursing Program, instead of opting for the Accelerated (UCAN) Program. She had two reasons: she wanted to prioritize her mental health and she wanted more time to complete the program.

“I really wanted to learn and not be super stressed out for a year,” she says. “I need a school-life balance and I didn’t want to burn out before I start my career.”


CU student nurses help celebrate Kelsey receiving the DAISY Award.

Something that’s helped Connolly manage the stress was finding “her nursing family”, a solid group of supportive friends she studies with.

“The first two semesters of the program hit me hard,” she says. “I imagine it's similar to a boxing match – you keep getting knocked flat but if you're passionate you get back on your feet and keep fighting. Some of my classmates, who’ve become fast friends, are the ones helping me get through it. I actually now live with one of them. We reasoned that we spend all our time studying together anyway, so why not live together?”

Connolly’s commitment to her friends is why she was honored with a CU Nursing Alumni Association DAISY Award. Each year, the CU Nursing Alumni Association Board of Directors chooses one current student from any nursing program level for this award. Connolly’s friends, Bailey Paskach and Nick Rodgers nominated her for creating study guides and forming a study group at her (and Bailey’s) home in Denver.

“She makes other students feel confident and cared for not only in nursing but in our personal lives,” Paskach wrote in her nomination for Kelsey. “She builds people up whether it's through the study guides, tutoring, or study sessions she runs or if she's just checking in to see how you are doing. She is selfless.”

“(Kelsey) is always passionate in her drive to learn more, be more, and do more. In the classroom, we as students must memorize the process of treatments for patients in exams, assignments, and more. Kelsey always digs deeper to ask and know the 'why' in everything; she is truly inspirational,” Rodgers wrote in his nomination for Kelsey.


CU Nursing students; roommate Bailey Paskach (L) and good friend Nick Rodgers (R) celebrate Kelsey Connolly receiving the DAISY Award.

“I was taken completely by surprise, I only knew something was up when Bailey and Nick led me to a side room after one of our tests. I completely froze up when I realized what was happening,” she says. “There’s a quote I love; “You are the sum of who you surround yourself with”. These guys have some of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known, and I’m honored that they thought I was deserving of this award.”

Connolly says her study guides are color-coded – calling them “neurotic”, but says they work for her brain. Study sessions involved plugging her computer into the TV so everyone knew what portion they were going over.

“We’d go through the study guides together, and if one person didn’t get something, we’d pause and make sure they understood it. It was a total group effort, we all taught each other and helped each other along.” she says.

She also prioritizes checking in on her friends and having a support system. “If something seems off, I try to check in. That’s what they do for me. Showing someone you notice them and care how they are is a simple action that can have a massive impact.”

“It’s important to check in on your friends’ personal and school lives because you can’t separate the two,” she says. “It’s very easy to feel alone and isolated if you don’t talk about it. If one person starts sharing, others feel more comfortable being vulnerable which builds this beautiful network of trust. It’s important to let people know that they’re not alone, and having a true support system is the antidote to isolation and burn out”.

Making Time to See Family

Connolly’s parents still live in her hometown near San Francisco, and Connolly prioritizes making time to see them. Her mother went through treatment after her breast cancer diagnosis and the cancer hasn’t returned.

“It's really difficult to have my life in Colorado, and my parents in California. We are close, so I regularly go home and to be present for them and support them,” she says. “Faculty has been so accommodating, compassionate, and respectful of my decisions – working with me so I can stay in school while still being able to show up for my parents.”

Connolly was able to see her parents over the holiday break and admits it was difficult leaving them.

“They wanted me to come back to school because they know how important this is to me, and they want me to continue living my life,” she says. “I’m here because of their undying support. They are two of the most hardworking, loving, and inspirational people I know. I’m so lucky to have them, and I’m grateful for everything they’ve done for me and the example they set for me.”

Looking Ahead to a Nursing Career

Connolly is keeping her options open after graduation in May 2025. She is considering going into psychiatry after recently finishing clinicals at Children’s Hospital Colorado and wants to earn her Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Degree. She’s keeping an open mind, she is also interested in critical care and toying with the idea of trying to teach at a nursing institution.

“I love making connections,” she says. “My goal is to connect with a patient, build trust, form a bond, and support their autonomy in their care. I want to make a difference for the individuals I care for, and maybe eventually on a larger scale.”

She also likes teaching patients – and wants to empower them in their care and give them the knowledge to understand what’s going on in their bodies.

“I want to make sure they can safeguard themselves and keep themselves going while helping them live the lives they want to live,” she says. “I want to leave my patients thinking ‘Okay, there’s someone who cares’. I can’t cure cancer or ALS, but I can make someone feel heard and validated as a human being. I’m beyond excited to pursue nursing as a career, there are so many opportunities to help so many different types of people, and that’s what we were built to do.”

Topics: Students