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Danielle's Story – How I Became a Clinical Nurse Specialist

Published on: October 21, 2020

A special thanks to Danielle Baldino, a graduate of the Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist (MSN) program at the University of San Diego's Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science, for taking the time to share her story.

Download A Guide to the University of San Diego's Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist for more information on the USD MSN program.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’ve been a nurse since 2011. From 2011 to 2017, I was a US Navy Nurse Corps Officer where I worked primarily in Psychiatric Nursing. This is still my chosen specialty; I am a Board Certified Psychiatric-Mental Health RN and I currently work in Acute and Intensive Mental Health Services at the VA Medical Center San Diego. 

I decided to pursue nursing after spending several years as a Certified Nurse’s Assistant. I felt like I had found my calling and a daily, renewed sense of purpose. As a nurse, I felt it was my duty to recognize the greatest need and run toward it; this intuition is what led me to serve in the US Navy, mental health, and now the VA.

What interested you in pursuing a career as a clinical nurse specialist?

I worked closely with a Clinical Nurse Specialist while in the Navy and the more I learned about the role, the more I felt it was made for me. I wanted to further my career, obtain an MSN, and become an Advanced Practice RN, but didn’t feel that being a Nurse Practitioner was my exact calling. My passion for serving vulnerable populations, ensuring evidence based practice, and process improvement made the decision to pursue the CNS track an easy one.

What attracted you to the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist program at the University of San Diego?

Once I started researching CNS programs, I quickly found out that Psychiatric CNS programs no longer exist and to become an APRN in Psychiatric-Mental Health the only option was Psychiatric NP. I weighed the options and ultimately decided that becoming a CNS was a non-negotiable for me, regardless of specialty.

As I started to research available Adult-Gerontology CNS programs, I was drawn to USD for several reasons. First, it is very highly rated for its MSN programs (in the top 10% nationwide) and recognized far and wide as a prestigious school. I liked that all of the core APRN classes were in-person. I had taken several Masters-level courses through distance learning in the past and knew that face-to-face interaction was more aligned with my personal learning style. The campus is beautiful and took my breath away everyday, from day one until graduation day!


I was drawn to USD for several reasons. It is very highly rated for its MSN programs (in the top 10% nationwide) and recognized far and wide as a prestigious school.

- Danielle Baldino, Clinical Nurse Specialist


Why did you decide to enroll?

Once I attended the open house, I fell in love with the program, the people, and the campus. I couldn’t believe how state-of-the-art the lab was! USD also offered the opportunity to transfer in many of those previously earned credits, which, especially as a busy adult learner, was very important in deciding which school to choose. I loved that they offered an education track in which I could take courses to hone in on my skills as an educator alongside my primary program. They also offered a robust Military and Veterans program which made using my GI Bill effortless. I enjoyed the various military and veteran-related events held on campus. Whenever I had questions about my transfer credits or schedule, the staff and faculty at USD responded quickly and made the transition seamless.

All around, despite my anxieties around being a college student again, I felt supported every step of the way - the “customer service” I experienced was unbelievable. 


Are you happy with your decision to pursue the MSN Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist program at USD?

Yes! At first I had some fears about returning to school full time and being a “psych nurse” in a medical program, but I continued to feel supported throughout my entire program. The faculty worked closely with me to align my clinical experiences with my own goals. All of my preceptors appreciated my passion and experience in mental health and did everything they could to incorporate those experiences into my clinical rotation. If I ever needed to take an elective, the staff and faculty always worked with me to make sure my course schedule worked for me and my educational goals. 

The faculty were CNSs who brought real, rich experience to the classroom which made all the difference to me. Class sizes were small and each of us felt our voices were heard. Our professors were actively engaged with us, always asking for feedback and never missing a beat if a situation called for flexibility. We had many opportunities to “flip the classroom” to take ownership of our own learning and fine-tune our own skills as educators and public speakers. In other words, we were treated as colleagues. 

COVID-19 hit right at the end of my program, but again the staff and faculty were right there by our sides, working diligently to ensure we all met our clinical objectives and graduated on time without ever sacrificing the integrity of the program.

How is the program advancing your skills and career?

I currently work as a CNS in Acute and Intensive Mental Health Services at the VA - a path which was completely paved by my experience at USD. I was assigned to a clinical rotation at the VA during the summer and was able to build relationships and a solid network during my time there, both of which encouraged me to apply for a soon-to-be vacant CNS position. I was hired as a Clinical Nurse Educator several months before graduation and, once I passed my board exam, was promoted to Clinical Nurse Specialist. 

I have been in my role for almost a year and the knowledge I gained in the Adult-Gerontology CNS program has proved invaluable. As a CNS at the VA,  I played a vital role in opening the new Therapeutic Neuromodulation clinic and relied on my education from the CNS program to guide me through everything from staff education to writing policy and procedures. I was also recently asked to return to USD as an Adjunct Clinical Faculty, further supporting my passion for education and advancing nursing knowledge.

What do you hope to do with your degree and experience after graduation?

I am already in my dream job at the VA, working with fellow veterans and those in need of acute mental health care, and I love being an adjunct at USD. I hope to continue to grow as both an APRN and CNS and eventually return to USD for a Doctorate in Nursing Practice.

If you could give a piece of advice to someone considering pursuing an MSN degree at USD, what would it be?

If you know you want to be an APRN, research all of the roles available to you! NP is not the only advanced practice route. If you have a passion for nursing mentorship and education, patient care, and organizational policy and procedure - look into the CNS role. If you are considering USD - especially if you are a Veteran and/or transferring student - you will not regret it! They will make your experience seamless and you will feel totally supported every step of the way.

A Guide to the University of San Diego's Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist Program

The University of San Diego's nursing program ranks among the best in the nation. But that's not the only reason future students walk through our doors to pursue one of our graduate degrees. Download our guide for an in-depth look at the Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist program and learn how our rich heritage of excellence in nursing education can help you achieve your academic and professional goals.

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