She started in housekeeping. Now she’s almost a nurse.

Imagine starting over in a foreign country, where you are unable to understand or speak the language. Simply surviving in such a situation would be admirable. But Ljiljana Boskovic — a certified nursing assistant on the verge of becoming a registered nurse at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center — had a dream, and she refused to let obstacles stand in her way.

“I always knew I wanted to go into nursing, but I couldn’t go to school here because I didn’t speak English,” said the 52-year-old native of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who arrived in the U.S. 19 years ago. “So, my sister, who moved to the U.S. before me, signed my family and I up for free ESL (English as a second language) classes at Calvary Baptist Church.”

In 2004, while everyone was still learning English, Boskovic started a new job with environmental services, informally known as housekeeping, at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem. In addition to cleaning, her duties included helping transfer patients, bringing them water or ice and interacting with patients and families — and she loved every moment.

Her enthusiasm and caring attitude quickly drew notice — one patient even called her supervisor, suggesting she help Boskovic get into a certified nursing assistant (CNA) program. As the title suggests, CNAs assist nurses with basic patient care, including feeding and bathing, taking vital signs and documenting health information.

It seemed like a logical step toward her ultimate goal of becoming a registered nurse (RN). So, armed with a Serbo-Croatian/ English dictionary to look up medical terms — and, by now, a basic understanding of English — Boskovic began attending afternoon classes at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem.

“I needed to keep working my regular job, but my manager would let me leave 15 minutes early so I could get to class on time. Then I’d go home to cook, and play with my two kids,” she said. “It was hard, but I enjoyed it. And I never, never complained, because I had a goal.”

‘Everyone just loved her’

As a CNA, Boskovic was extremely popular among both nurses and patients, said Arkia Armstrong, director of pipeline and recruitment programs in Novant Health’s people and culture department. A former staff nurse at Forsyth, Armstrong enjoyed working closely with Boskovic for several years.

“You could feel her passion for nursing in the way that she took her time with each and every individual patient,” she said. “She always took care of her work, but never let that keep her from building relationships with patients and families. On her days off, they would always ask, ‘Where’s Ljiljana?’ Everyone just loved her.”

Meanwhile, Boskovic had continued taking classes to fulfill her prerequisites for a nursing degree and was eventually accepted into a two-year nursing program. In following years, however, she was forced to withdraw from school several times to tend to urgent family matters.

“I have no regrets about any of that time — life is just like this. Sometimes, things do not go how we’d like,” she said. “You try to achieve something. Maybe you fail. But you hold on to the reason why you want to do it, and then you pick yourself up and try again.”

‘This was my time’

Eventually, as things settled down and her children left home to attend college and pursue their own careers, Boskovic realized the time had come to return to school herself. “This was my time,” she said. “I was finally able to make time for myself, and to really give myself to school. Fully.”

Her family, friends and colleagues offered encouragement but meeting the demands of a two-year nursing program while working full-time as a CNA to make ends meet was a struggle. Then, about a year in, Boskovic learned about — and was accepted into — the Novant Health Upward Mobility RN Educational Assistance Fund program.

This financial award promotes upward mobility among Novant Health team members facing economic challenges and other disadvantages, providing up to two years of tuition and fees for an approved nursing program. It also includes the option of working a reduced schedule with continued full-time pay and health benefits, professional coaching and mentorship, financial counseling and more.

“When she received the award, Ljiljana had one year of school remaining until she earned her associate degree in nursing,” said Erika Robinson, people and culture specialist for the pipeline and recruitment programs. “So, we worked with her throughout that year, right up to graduation, to support her in reaching her goal.”

Lily Outside

Along with the monetary assistance, the ability to work fewer hours while attending classes was invaluable, Boskovic said. This gift of time allowed her to focus on her studies, while still earning enough to help support her family.

However, because student nurses were not allowed to do in-person residencies during the COVID-19 pandemic, she found herself craving the company of colleagues and patients. So, when she grew weary of studying and screen time, Boskovic would call her manager and head into work on a scheduled day off, just for the joy of it.

“To say Ljiljana is driven hardly describes her,” Robinson said. “There were so many obstacles in her way: coming from a different country, not speaking the language. But she never gave up on what she loved, and look where she is now.”

Where is she now? In May, Boskovic graduated from Catawba Community College, in Hickory, North Carolina, and continues to delight patients and colleagues working in the residency program for new nurses while preparing to take the licensing exams necessary to become an RN.

In her downtime, she loves to delve into biographies (mostly about topics other than nursing), pick fresh fruit at local farms with her family and plan future vacations exploring the U.S. And — this might not come as a surprise — she is considering the possibility of going back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing.