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Emory nursing student shares her 'Second Act' with Jennifer Lopez

“Do you ever look at your life and wonder how you got there? If you made different choices, would you be happy?” — actressJennifer Lopez in the her new movie, “Second Act” 

A few weeks ago, Emory nursing student Kimberly Gardner pried herself away from her books to take a study break with Twitter — a chance decision that would prompt a remarkable chain of events, leading her places she could have never dreamed. 

A huge fan of Jennifer Lopez, Gardner was scrolling through the mega-star’s tweets when she stumbled across these words: “Have you had a Second Act in life? Would @JLo be amazed? Tell us why and you may get a chance to meet her yourself!”

To that, Lopez had added, “Looking for your Second Act stories and can’t wait!!!”

Second act? Oh, Gardner knows a thing or two about second acts.

Her road to the Accelerated BSN + MSN program at Emory’s nationally acclaimed Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing has been anything but conventional, including detours in military service, explorations of alternative career paths, and an assortment of academic degrees. She regrets none of it, because it all led her here, studying at Emory to become a neonatal nurse practitioner.

Looking at the Twitter appeal, she thought, “Why not?”

On a whim, Gardner wrote about her life story to the producers of ABC’s Good Morning America, which was helping to promote Lopez’ new movie, “Second Act.” 

Diving back into studying for final exams — which began last week — Gardner thought little about it until she received a phone call from GMA producers a few days later. They loved her story and wanted to know more. 

She was definitely being considered as a finalist for their “Second Act” contest, they told her, although there were others to interview. If chosen, could she fly to New York the following week for a final round of interviews? They would call in a few days to confirm.

Flustered and excited, Gardner agreed. If it happened, it happened. If not, fine.

“My husband just laughs,” she says. “He’s always telling me, ‘I never know what you’re going to be doing next. You always surprise me.’” 

After no phone call, Gardner assumed she hadn’t made the cut — until producers reached out around 5:30 a.m. last Monday to tell her she was a finalist. “We need to get you on a flight here right away,” they told her. “Are you available Tuesday and Wednesday?”

Gardner agreed, with one condition: She had to be back in Atlanta no later than Thursday, Dec. 13. 

You see, her first final exam was Friday. 

Taking a chance, making a change

So began a media whirlwind. There were cameras in her apartment, interviews with her mother in Biloxi, Mississippi, and her husband, Ramsey Gardner, now serving an internal medicine residency in San Antonio, Texas. 

GMA flew her to New York City, checked her into a hotel in Times Square, and sent a car to pick her up for hair and make-up at the ABC studios early last Wednesday morning — the full celebrity treatment, she says.

For a girl who grew up in a trailer in Key Largo, Florida, it was a Cinderella moment. 

Born in Costa Rica, Gardner came to America with her mother and stepfather when she was 4. They settled in the Florida Keys, where her father worked for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

After high school, Gardner wanted to attend college, but was unsettled on a direction. At the time, she didn’t want to stray too far from home and family; her father also felt protective and didn’t want to set her up for failure.

Exploring community college, Gardner found she didn’t qualify for financial aid. She tried it anyway, going to school and working full-time to support herself and cover tuition. “I gained the freshman 15 and accumulated more and more debt,” she recalls. “I ended up having to drop out and no longer even had a car.”

Around the same time, her fiancée cheated on her, ending their three-year relationship — a new low. “I was working at the film counter of a CVS pharmacy looking at my life and feeling stuck.”

“I just knew I didn’t like what I saw and had to make a drastic change,” she adds.

So she did. Drawn by the educational benefits offered through the GI bill, Gardner joined the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, shortly after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. “It was completely desolate,” she recalls. “I started off working in a little shed, watching the Air Force base and Biloxi get rebuilt from the ground up.”

In some ways it was a metaphor. Gardner was rebuilding her life, too.

She began working in medical logistics, ordering hospital pharmaceutical supplies and equipment. And she started taking classes again, earning two associate degrees — in English and Business Administration — from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. 

While in the Air Force, she would meet her future husband, who dreamed of becoming an officer and a doctor. Gardner had her own dreams: earning a four-year college degree and going to law school, then becoming an officer and an attorney for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG).

After six years with the Air Force, Gardner had sharpened her vision and ambition. She enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and accepted a commissioned officer’s slot in the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

But a semester before she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science, her husband was offered an officer’s position and admission to medical school at the University of Arkansas. Gardner had a choice: if she remained in the military, she could be sent anywhere. A few internships with attorneys convinced her that law wasn’t her passion, after all.

She left the military to move to Arkansas with her husband, where she began working as a patient care technician at a Level One Trauma Center emergency department. “I basically helped the nurses, so I got to see that one-on-one patient dynamic, what the duties really included,” she recalls. “That’s when I decided I really wanted to go to nursing school.” 

Finding the path forward

Researching colleges, she met roadblocks. “I’m a little older and a non-traditional student,” she says. “Most colleges were telling me it would take me at least three years to complete another bachelor’s degree.”

Exploring other options, she discovered the Accelerated BSN + MSN program at Emory’s School of Nursing. “We’ve been offering this program for about 8 years — it’s for those students who already have a previous college degree, have decided they want to become a nurse and are willing to complete the program in four straight semesters,” says Terri Ades, BSN + MSN program director.

Among accelerated options available to Emory nursing students, the BSN + MSN program lets students receive their registered nurse licensing then go right into an advanced practice program at the master's level. And it's proven extremely popular, now drawing the highest numbers of the school’s admissions applications, according to Ades. “Kimberly knew exactly what she wanted to do when she applied, and our program has allowed her to pursue that,” she adds.

Along with Emory’s overall reputation for academic excellence, the program’s flexibility appealed to Gardner. After finishing her BSN recently, she dove straight into her first full semester of MSN studies.

“It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” Gardner says. “But I’ve made friends and found a support system, gritted through my failures and pushed forward.” 

While serving a series of 10-hour overnight clinical rotations in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Gwinnett Medical Center during her BSN training, Gardner felt everything click. “It was rough, but I needed to know that this specialty was truly for me, and being there solidified that,” she says. “Every time I left I had a smile on my face. It just fills me with joy.”

The neonatal nurse practitioner (NNP) specialty comprises only about 3 percent of nurse practitioners nationwide, who care for infants and preemies as young as 23 weeks old — the smallest babies at the greatest risk, says Suzanne Staebler, a clinical professor and NNP. “It’s highly technical, highly specialized and very intense,” she says.

Moving forward, Gardner hopes to secure a job in an NICU while continuing her MSN coursework online, with plans to graduate in 2020. 

Identifying a dream and achieving it

Sitting by herself backstage at GMA, Gardner reflected on her circuitous academic path. Second act? How about third or fourth act? 

Producers had told her she’d be meeting other finalists. So when they arrived to take her on a studio tour, something seemed off.

Turns out, it was all an elaborate ruse. Gardner had actually won the contest.

As a stage screen slid open, thunderous applause erupted from a studio audience. Stunned, Gardner remembers thinking, “Oh no, no, no, no — this is not about to happen!” 

But there was GMA host Robin Roberts, smiling and grabbing her hand, leading her to the sofa. “I know that you were saying that Jennifer Lopez was somebody that you looked up to,” Roberts said. “What was it about her story that helped you?” 

Gardner spoke of Lopez’ tenacity and resilience, identifying a dream and achieving it, refusing to let anyone stop her. “We need to see that sometimes,” she said. “Just people going for what they want.” 

Like you, Roberts noted. “People in the audience were so inspired watching your story. Does anybody want to ask a question?” 

Up popped Jennifer Lopez herself, clad in a shimmering jumpsuit. “I’m really inspired by your story,” the singer-actress said. “Can I come sit next to you?” 

Hands to her face, Gardner was near tears as Lopez hugged her. She thanked Lopez for being a role model and inspiration, earning another big hug from the performer.

“Everybody gets a second act,” Lopez said. “I loved your story. Your story was so touching. It’s exactly that thing where you think you have these terrible moments in your life and you don’t know how you’re going to go on, and then that actual thing leads you exactly where you’re supposed to be. We just have to have faith, right?”

Another hug later, Lopez revealed a second surprise: “So, the premiere of ‘Second Act’ is tonight here in New York City — we have a big, huge premiere — and I’d love it if you could come. Do you have a date?”

That’s when her husband walked out with a bouquet of red roses. “We’re going to go to the premiere tonight!” Lopez told them.

After a quick shopping trip for red carpet-worthy clothes, the Gardners were rubbing elbows with actors, producers, directors and production crew at the premiere of “Second Act,” co-starring Leah Remini, Vanessa Hudgens and Milo Ventimiglia, which opens nationwide Dec. 21. 

“It actually was a really good holiday movie, funny and moving,” Gardner says. “Everybody needs second chances, that moment where you can say, ‘Let’s make a change.’”

Attending the premiere after-party, Gardner and her husband soaked it all in: the glamorous décor, the waiters, the swarm of celebrities. “You know honey, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to top this,” she told him.

Not that long ago, Gardner was a depressed, unemployed college drop-out foundering for direction who took a chance on change.

Today, she is married to the love of her life, pursuing her academic passion at a leading university and looking forward to an exciting career. “You know, my mother never graduated from high school,” she says. “For me, being at Emory is both so amazing and so surreal.” 

As for her own second act? Gardner is grateful for it all, but her story’s far from over. 

Just wait for the encore.

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