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Now that we are all completely versed in working and learning from home, this first semester back should be an absolute breeze. We’ve perfected our posture while sitting at our dining room tables for hours on Zoom meetings or classes that probably could have been an email. We all know to wear pants, or at least something on the bottom half. We never forget to mute ourselves while chatting with roommates, and always remember to unmute ourselves when we have something important to share with the group. Right? 

Years down the line we might look back on this time as the era of Zoom, but until then we remain in the absolute thick of it all. Some classes go online better than others—nursing is not one of those easily transferable programs. Three students opened up about their continued inspiration to become nurses, and how even though the program has changed drastically in the last year, they are committed to the end. 

Cassandra Clarke is entering her third year of the nursing program this September in pursuit of becoming a Registered Nurse (RN), and has always seen herself as a natural caregiver. 

“I’ve wanted to be a nurse since I was very young,” Clarke said. “I remember my first little project in elementary school was one of those ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ and mine was on becoming a nurse.” 

Clarke explained that the third-year nursing students lost precious lab time this past spring. “We still had lab,” she said, “but we only went in for an hour to learn the skill and that was it. Usually, we’d have at least three hours to practice on each other.”

“Our practicum was online,” she added. “It turned into a six-week course that consisted of two Zoom meetings a week, three hours each. We had discussion days and simulation days. The simulations were surprisingly really good and we all got to do them together. The most difficult aspect of online school was, and still is, group projects. With so much being online, everyone’s schedules vary a lot more than when we were all in the same building at the same time.”

Camilla Arnold is in her fourth year of the nursing program. She was working as a Licensed Practical Nurse at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital when she decided to return to school last year to complete the RN program. 

“I was hospitalized when I was seven years old,” Arnold said. “That time sparked my desire to become a nurse, someone who could make scary things seem not-so-scary.” 

Now she is focused on specializing in the emergency department because of its fast-paced nature and the opportunity to see new patients every day. 

Reflecting on the online transition in March, Arnold said, “it went as smooth as it could have—I did feel though that the teachers had a difficult time deciding how to adapt the remaining curriculum. The restrictions put on our practicum for third-year students over the summer was that our practicum was cut from eight weeks to four weeks in the hospital. Having another four weeks would have been ideal for skills development and time management. Although VIU, under normal circumstances, provides longer practicums than most other nursing programs in BC.”

Alicia Clish smiling in the face of an uncertain semester

Alicia Clish is another fourth-year student nurse. Most of the women in Clish’s family are caretakers both in profession and personality.

“I think that shaped me into having care for others as a core value. I am also a learner and am drawn to biology and human sciences, so nursing is a great mix of both,” she said. 

“I think the transition went as smoothly as one could expect,” Clish added. “I think it would be a bit naive to expect our school and professors to have an ‘in case of global pandemic’ plan just in their back pocket, especially when the information was literally changing by the day, sometimes within hours.”

“I would say that our practicum felt a bit thrown together, and there were some inconsistencies between groups, but again, a certain level of understanding has to be given as it was not only the school’s, but the health authority’s and hospital’s protocols that needed to be satisfied to ensure student and public safety.” 

These three student nurses are hopeful for the fall semester. Clish voiced that she is hoping to see clear, consistent, and transparent communication between professors and students in this new season regarding expectations and guidelines. Arnold is hoping for innovative in-person class time, and for the majority of classes to be on Zoom.

Clarke said, “part of going to school is about social interaction and hanging out with people in the same field as you. So, I’m already missing that—it’s just not the same. It’s hard for me personally, because I know that I need people around me to keep me motivated. I can easily get distracted when I don’t have a group around me doing the same thing and the nursing program is different from other programs in that our semesters are laid out for us so all the courses are mandatory and we don’t have a say in our schedule.” 

Clarke explained that usually they would have “clinical,” which is a class that happens once or twice a week in the hospital where the students split into small groups that go to different units—surgical, medical, maternity, NICU, etc.—but this was quickly cancelled in the wake of the pandemic in the spring, preventing any interaction with patients. Fortunately, they have opened it up for the fall semester, so the student nurses will have the opportunity for hands-on experience again. 

“Zoom presentations make me want to crawl into a hole,” Clarke admitted. “It’s so awkward. You can’t feel the room, and there’s the whole technical aspect that can make things clunky online and it can be really frustrating. There needs to be grace for students and for professors, none of us knew things would turn out like this and we’re all trying our best.”

Clarke has noticed that since March, people have become much more aware of their actions and how they can affect those around them. 

“There’s more information and guidelines that are just more accessible to all people now more than ever,” she said. 

Clarke recently started a job as a Healthcare Assistant where she’s required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) for the duration of an eight-hour shift. While she stressed the importance of using PPE, she did make an important point: 

“It takes away from interacting with your patient on a more holistic level. There is a clear barrier between me and them, it’s hard to understand and read my expressions. In that way healthcare has changed more for patients and how they interact with healthcare workers.” 

Clish said, “I don’t think people realize how important things like [community and family] support are to one’s healing, and that not being able to have visitors to comfort, ease concerns, or be a friendly face puts that responsibility on healthcare staff. I do not think that the pandemic has changed my viewpoint on nursing, but rather solidified it.”

Clish also spoke powerfully to the public’s response to health care workers at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic: “I do think that globally there has been an outpouring of support for healthcare workers. Has this been turned into lobbying for better workplace environments or pay? Not necessarily. Has the celebration of or attention given to health care workers dissipated as the pandemic wears on? I’d say yes. Has there been a general increased understanding of what nurses sacrifice to care for those who are ill? I hope so.”

Clish said that her nursing interests have ebbed and flowed since she started the program three years ago. From being “team emergency all the way,” to surgical, to wanting to be in the operating room. 

“My worldview changed during a mental health rotation,” she said, “and for the first time I considered community nursing.”

The science of nursing is vast, and she added, “I do feel as if I am of two minds, both that of the surgical and that of mental health.” 

After completing the RN program, Clish aspires to become either a professor of nursing or a Nurse Practitioner, which require a Master of Nursing, or even both. 

Clish is one of the nursing students on the CHLY campus radio station who speaks about health promotion and community resources on the show called “A Sound Constitution.” 

“I think now more than ever it is important to have accessible information that is relatable and easily digestible. Last semester we did a series surrounding invisible illnesses, and I’m sure this semester we’ll have some COVID information, as well as mental health, and ways to stay connected,” Clish said. 

Her future as a nurse is looking bright with opportunities. 

“I always think that if I can make health care interactions just one percent easier, then I’ve done my job,” she said. “Most of my memories throughout my practicum experiences are not of successfully doing this skill or that—though that is a rewarding feeling—but rather the connection made. Like the time I led a dad through his first bath with his child, or the time I took my patient through a tour of the hospital to ease their anxiety, or when I held a patient’s hand and asked them questions about their family while they were getting a painful dressing done. It isn’t about seeing the cool things or doing the fun things; it’s about being open to the experience of connecting with someone during what is likely their most vulnerable state, and respecting that space and that moment.”

This fall will be Arnold’s last academic semester—the spring semester for fourth-year nurses takes place completely in the hospital—and she couldn’t be more excited to graduate. The journey towards her dream of becoming a nurse has been a long road, and seeing the finish line puts a smile on her face. 

Arnold and Clish are hopeful that their spring semester will go ahead in hospital rather than a mix of Zoom and online learning, as the entire semester is created to happen in the hospital so student nurses can gain hands-on experience with the support they need.

When asked how the lack of hands-on practice both in school and in hospital will impact the nurses hoping to graduate this coming spring, Arnold said, “all the students in the nursing program are so driven and smart. I feel that what we lack will only drive us harder to be the best we can be.”

Clish expressed her sympathy for the incoming nursing students: 

“First-year is hard. I feel for them. You’re entering this super competitive program, you know very few people, and you have no standing connections with any professors. You’re getting comfortable with new equipment—basically learning a new language—and having to get comfortable with the idea of intimacy with strangers. By that, I mean lots of people coming into nursing have never seen strangers naked, never had to bathe another adult, feed them, or care for them when they’re at their most vulnerable. In terms of physical skills you’re learning blood pressure, you’re learning where to put your stethoscope for lung sounds, you’re learning head to toe assessments of skin and perfusion. I am personally a tactile learner, I do best watching physical demonstrations and then having the opportunity to cement that muscle memory. I am not sure I would be able to do that in a purely online format.”

Clarke spoke candidly about the grind that is ahead of her. 

“Honestly, I am struggling to find the motivation to start this September, even though this is my dream career.”

I asked Arnold, Clarke, and Clish what advice they would give to the first-year nurses who are starting their education this semester:

Arnold: “Reach out to individuals who are already nurses; find a way to be mentored by a working nurse. This can help shape what nursing path you want to go down and will help keep perspective in the nursing program.”

Clarke: “Reach out to your peers for support and instructors if you’re struggling with anything. Also, get a planner and be organized as much as possible with assignments and due dates.”

Clish: “Be open to everything! Be open a hundred percent to every facet of nursing, because that’s when personal growth happens. You don’t have the ability to be affected by your environment if you don’t engage with your environment. Even if it’s scary, even if it sounds boring, even if your friend thinks it’s not for you, try it. It’s the best way to learn, it will give you the strongest connections with your peers, and it will give you assurance that the path you take is the right one for you. You will never have the same ability to try on roles in such a temporary and exploratory environment again.”

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