Kristen “Kris” Hysler is not your typical nursing student. At the age of 38, she’s nearly the oldest in her accelerated second degree bachelor’s in nursing (BSN) cohort — a program that fast-tracks career changers to a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 15 months.

When she walks across the stage at Addition Financial Arena this Saturday, she already has a job waiting. After she takes the national registered nurse (RN) licensure exam, Hysler will begin the RN transition-to-practice residency at the Orlando VA. She hopes to eventually practice in critical care, but says, “wherever they put me, I’ll be happy.”

“If you had asked me at 22 where I would be and what I would be doing now, I guarantee that nursing school would not have been how I answered,” Hysler says.

Hysler had been performing since 4 and graduated with a musical theatre degree from Point Park University in Pittsburgh. But life had other plans. She lost most of her hearing in her 20s, and after bartending in Chicago and New York, returned to Central Florida in her mid-30s to care for her father.

“I was not expecting to be here long,” she says.

But one year after returning home, in March 2020, her dad fell and was admitted to the ICU. For four days and nights, Hysler stayed in the ICU to help care for him.

“The nurses tried to talk me into going to nursing school,” she says. “My response was, ‘Who would want a 35-year-old who is hard of hearing and wears hearing aids?’ ”

“Apparently, they did and pointed out several nurses who started their careers even in their 40s and 50s,” Hysler says.

Then, the pandemic began and she lost her job.

“(If that didn’t happen), I wouldn’t have had time to stop and really think about making a change to nursing,” she says.

The time allowed Hysler to jump right into the new career, which would allow her to still take care of others but offer greater job security and benefits. She took prerequisites at Valencia College, applied to UCF and began her studies in Summer 2022.

“I like that (the program) is so focused,” says Hysler, who made the most of her time in the program and participated in a study abroad trip to the Bahamas. “You are going 100 miles per hour, and by the time you stop, it’s time to graduate.”

Hysler, who received support from UCF’s Student Accessibility Services, credits her success in the program to the prerequisites that provided her a solid foundation and technology such as a stethoscope that links to her phone to see a heartbeat and pulse. The technology also allows her to record the vitals to send to providers.

“A lot of people out there didn’t think I could do this,” she says. “Their perspective was that you only hear with your ears, but you learn to cope and use your other senses. There’s always a way.”

Hysler found a way and her calling. While balancing the demands of the fast-paced program, the national Helene Fuld Health Trust scholar worked part-time at Walt Disney World. She also worked as a student nurse tech at the Orlando VA Medical Center after being selected for the competitive VALOR (Veterans Affairs’ Learning Opportunities Residency) program — which helped her complete more than 1,100 clinical hours.

Hysler also has personal ties to the VA as it’s where her dad receives a lot of his care. “(The VA has) already done so much for my family, and I owe them so much,” Hysler says. “I’m really excited to give back to them, and to work there.”

She hopes to inspire others, whether they’re older or differently abled, to pursue nursing. “It’s never too late,” she says.

For Hysler, her UCF nursing degree is just the beginning. She hopes to eventually continue her education and become a certified registered nurse anesthetist with the VA.

“I am ready to go where I am needed and make an adventure of it,” she says.