Feature Stories Alumni: Paula Cruz ’14, MS ’21 finds her reason why at UMassD

CNHS Alumna
Cruz graduated with her undergraduate degree in nursing in 2014 and returned to UMass Dartmouth for her master's degree in nursing global public health in 2021.
Feature Stories Alumni: Paula Cruz ’14, MS ’21 finds her reason why at UMassD
Paula Cruz ’14, MS ’21 finds her reason why at UMassD

Western Massachusetts native Cruz always dreamt of making a real difference one day and discovered her calling to serve others in adventures at UMassD & beyond.

Incessant beeping. Muffled whispers behind curtains. Hastened footsteps pacing back and forth, back and forth. For those in the medical field, this hospital setting becomes a second home, where compassion, care, and dedication seamlessly blend into the demanding yet rewarding rhythm of healthcare.

For Paula Cruz ’14, MS ’21, becoming a nurse opened the door to boundless opportunities to leave her mark on the world and impact society for the greater good. It was always a passionate dream of hers to become someone that brings forth change and positivity, and the medical field was her pathway to accomplishing that goal in her life. When it came time for her to attend college and pursue a successful career, Cruz combed through colleges with the best nursing programs in the state of Massachusetts and applied to UMass Dartmouth’s College of Nursing & Health Sciences.

“I was torn between UMass Dartmouth and UMass Boston,” Cruz admitted. Upon her admission to UMass Dartmouth, she was named an Endeavor Leadership Scholarship recipient that granted her a full ride to the university. “I received scholarships to attend both colleges, but what won me over was the reputation of the nursing program. Coupled with my scholarship, it was a no-brainer at that point.”

In the fall of 2010, Cruz made the trek from the green rolling hills of East Longmeadow, MA to the SouthCoast’s sandy shores to attend UMass Dartmouth. While she knew nursing would be her field of study, she hadn’t discovered what her reason why was yet. Despite being certain of the difference she wanted to make in the world, Cruz felt unsure about what kind of impact she would make and how she would pursue it.

For Cruz, UMass Dartmouth became the place where she first experienced the irresistible pull to serving others in the nursing profession. It’s where she fell in love with administering care out of the sheer goodness of her heart. It’s where she learned that leaving her mark on patients and healthcare professionals alike can have the same impact as changing the world on a massive scale.

Surgical team at Boston Children's Hospital
Cruz (left) smiles behind a mask with colleagues from Boston Children's Hospital, where she now dedicates countless hours to administering life-changing care.

Giving others the chance to dream

As a student, UMass Dartmouth’s community welcomed her with open arms and made her feel part of the Corsair family. The friendships she forged were part of UMass Dartmouth’s down to earth culture that made her feel right at home and inspired her to give back to fellow students.

While raising funds for Senior Week, Cruz and Josh Encarnacion ’14 used the remaining money to establish the Dream Scholarship and provide financial aid for the coming generations that will pass through the doors of UMassD’s brutalist buildings. Last year’s recipient received a helpful contribution that eased financial stress and inspired them to strive for more in and out of the classroom.

“I was awarded a scholarship to attend UMass Dartmouth, so the Dream Scholarship felt like me acknowledging that I understood what kind of difference that it made for me as a student,” said Cruz. “Even as a senior in college, I knew that I wanted to make sure that I was part of something that would leave a lasting effect.”

Cruz’s impact on UMassD students was only the beginning of her call to serve others. She would later find that her nursing studies would take her across international borders to places where she could make that real difference she desired, one patient at a time.

Opportunities turn into a career of adventures

After Cruz established the Dream Scholarship, a significant figure emerged during the remainder of her academic journey, Professor Emeritus Jeanne Leffers, PhD, RN. The pair met when Cruz enrolled in Dr. Leffers’ community health courses that took part in a service trip to Haiti.

“When I think back to it, Dr. Leffers believed in me before I even believed in myself,” Cruz said. “I was grateful to have her because nursing school was really not easy for me. There were people like Jean that knew my potential before I even did and motivated me to continue.”

Nursing alumna performs surgery with others
Cruz (left) became an OR nurse after completing an extensive program at Saint Luke's Hospital in New Bedford, and took her expertise from the SouthCoast with her to Boston Children's Hospital.

The service trip to Haiti was Cruz’s awakening to her real reason why she wants to be a nurse. It made her realize she wanted to spend her nursing career creating small ripple effects in healthcare systems around the world, sharing her medical knowledge for the sake of humankind’s betterment.

Students learned how medical providers from the U.S. work alongside providers from Haiti to deliver the best care after a devastating earthquake. Cruz said, “I remember being in Haiti and working with patients and their families. I remember saying, ‘This is why I want to become a nurse.’ The trip just changed everything for me.”

Since graduating in 2014, she worked as a nurse and underwent an extensive OR program at Saint Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, MA. By April 2016, she transitioned to Boston Children’s Hospital as an OR nurse and became a surgical specialty nurse for a surgeon. In 2021, she graduated from UMass Dartmouth again with her master’s degree in nursing global public health and later received her post-masters FNP program from UMass Boston. She is currently a nurse practitioner in the colorectal pelvic malformation center at Children’s.

“I’ve actually gone back to Haiti since that first trip as an OCR nurse working with surgical teams from Boston Children’s Hospital,” said Cruz. She’s made a habit of traveling to share her medical expertise with others, and has volunteered to go to the Dominican Republic, Ghana, China, and Taiwan. When she goes on these trips, her intention isn’t to help over 1,000 people over a period of time. Rather, she is there to support medical teams that already exist by showing them proper medical techniques and other crucial information. Again, it’s a small ripple in a much larger pool of water, a keen understanding that focusing on smaller groups of patients will eventually inflict change for the masses.

Nursing alumna gives presentation overseas
While traveling overseas, Cruz gives presentations on her career experiences in an ever-evolving medical industry.

“Nursing feels like a universal language to me,” Cruz said. “People ask me how I communicate with others when I go to other countries, but most of it is actually nonverbal cues. One of the reasons I wanted to become a nurse practitioner was because I knew I wanted to be able to do more when I go on those trips. When I say more, it’s not about being able to prescribe medications, but it’s about learning more so I can teach others.”

Given that people from all over the world turn to Boston Children’s Hospital for medical attention, Cruz wants to get creative about how she administers care to patients, whether that be in-person, virtually, or over the phone. “Patients and their families travel from as far as California, Hawaii, and even the Middle East to be seen by our medical staff. In the back of my mind, I just wonder what their social determinants of health are and would love to investigate that further by going on more service trips.”

Since attending UMass Dartmouth, Cruz’s comprehension of making a difference has drastically changed. Her nursing education, hands-on clinical experience, and faculty connections built a foundation for blossoming success that she is eager to discover beyond a hospital setting. Her vision of her future career may have been out of focus at the start of her journey, but it is now clear that she has found where she belongs: across seas fostering equity in terms of access to care.

On April 17, 2024, Cruz received the Alumni Volunteer Service Award for demonstrating consistent acts of loyal and unselfish service to the community at the 51st annual Alumni Awards. Read more about how UMass Dartmouth celebrated all that Cruz has accomplished as a Corsair here.