Cambodian patients at a local health clinic call her the "small white doctor." Catherine Elie is not a physician but a nurse practitioner pursuing her doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree at UMass Lowell.

After three years of treating patients at the Metta Health Center in Lowell – the term Metta means love, kindness and compassion in the Khmer Buddhist language – Elie understands why most nurse practitioners shy away from working in a community health center.

"Community health is a daunting field. Patients are extremely sick with challenging family situations," says Elie who has volunteered in Cambodia. "Many Cambodians in Lowell have survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and have long-term health effects."

Yet she can't imagine doing anything else. In fact, she enrolled in the DNP program at UMass Lowell to help her realize her vision of leading more nurses into the field.

"My dream is to design a one-year paid residency for new nurse practitioners to expose them to the challenging, yet satisfying world of community health," she says.

Elie wants to become more of a teacher and mentor in developing strong nurse practitioner clinicians to improve access to care, especially in light of health care reform. While more people have health insurance, not all people have access due to a lack of primary care providers.

"I decided to get my DNP degree to learn new skills that will help me improve the system, making care more accessible and effective for more people," says Elie.

Students in the program take courses in leadership, quality improvement and health care informatics and finance – giving high-level nurses a practical basis for transforming the health care system.

"I know that nurse practitioners are an integral part of making health care for all a cost-effective reality."