Nursing school graduates yearn to join coronavirus fight

Ellen Furman is convinced that if Florence Nightingale were around today, she’d be filled with admiration for those in the modern nursing profession she founded — and those yearning to enter it in the most challenging times.

“Never in my tenure as a registered nurse have I been more proud of my fellow nurses,” said Furman, director of nursing at American International College in Springfield, which is one of several area institutions preparing to send a new generation of nurses into the field.

The 200th anniversary of Nightingale’s birth on May 12, 1820, inspired the World Health Organization to designate 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife. That designation is even more poignant as the coronavirus pandemic puts nurses and other health care workers in harm’s way as they care for vulnerable patients.

As the 2020 graduates of nursing programs in Western Massachusetts prepare to enter the field, they face challenges they could never have imagined just three months ago.


But of all the emotions the pandemic has produced, one overrides the rest: These graduates can’t wait to join the fight to restore public health. Just as military soldiers have answered the call to arms, they are energized by this sinister and unseen enemy to enter the fray.


“I see today’s nurse as a warrior fighting COVID-19, often referred to as the invisible war,” Furman said. “I believe that now is a proud time for nurses, as it is realized that the work they do is noble and that they are duly appreciated for the work that they do.”


That’s the message taken by Heather Schmidt, a 22-year-old University of Massachusetts senior from Dedham.


“This pandemic has only strengthened my appreciation for health care and essential workers. I feel so proud and humbled to be going into nursing,” Schmidt said.


“I do think of the risk for being exposed, but that is something that we are trained to deal with and in many aspects I am so happy I chose this profession,” she said. “I can’t wait to be surrounded by such amazing, selfless people every day at work.”


"(Students) trust they will be guided by competent faculty, who love being nurses and are able to teach students how to care for others while protecting themselves. Now, more than ever, we need nurses to be leaders and advocates for our practice and communities. Students will rise to this challenge,'' Westfield State University assistant professor Jessica Holden said.


“While COVID-19 has made entry into the career of nursing a bit daunting, I prefer to look at it as a challenge,” said Kyle O’Brien, 23, an Elms College senior from Amston, Connecticut.


“It encompasses being (patients’) advocate, educator, support, and a healer. I choose to look at entering the nursing field during a pandemic as a challenge that solidifies why I chose to become a nurse,” he said.

Educators agree, but the stress created by unprecedented circumstances is not ignored.


“I do fear for these novice nurses as these are chaotic times within health care and continuing to learn during chaos is not ideal,” Furman said. “I do feel as though our students are well-prepared. However, even experienced nurses are feeling overwhelmed during these unprecedented times.”


"This is always an exciting and nerve wracking time for students in the best of times. How can we support and mentor them as they go into an acute care environment?'' asked Greenfield Community College Assistant Dean of Nursing Patricia McPeak-Larocca, who said the risk of burnout among new nurses must be acknowledged and mitigated.


Recent events have had a sobering effect on students, but also an inspiring one.


“This pandemic has distracted me from my studies in more emotional than physical aspects,” AIC senior Hannah Consolini said. “I feel a slight wave of fear, but then that fear quickly dissipates and transforms into hope.”


Consolini said distance learning has been a challenge, but she refuses to let it derail her.


“Healthcare and other essential workers have been fighting so hard (against COVID-19),” Consolini said. “This has given me more drive and motivation when it comes to my studies.”


At a time job security in most fields is wavering, there is still a call for nurses.


Junior Delgado, director of the Career Center and Employer Relations at Westfield State University, said a recent search of found 1,081 job listings for people with bachelor’s degrees in nursing, registered nurses, school nurses, assisted living nurses and so on.

When the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke posted a need for nurses, it was a quick hiring turnaround to get nurses working as soon as possible, he said.


“Many of the jobs are ICU and ER positions for experienced nurses to help with the COVID crisis,” Schmidt said. “But on the same front, I’ve also seen a lot of new postings for other areas, too.”


“So far, the landscape is looking promising for being able to find a first job pretty quickly, which is one plus from this whole situation,” she said.


Nonetheless, those leaving college enter a world of new uncertainties. One was created by a state executive order allowing graduating nurses to practice before being licensed - a nearly unprecedented response to the need for staffing.


"It’s very unusual. It was to (add to the healthcare) workforce,'' McPeak-Larocca said.


These newer nurses are closely supervised and assigned only tasks for which they are sufficiently trained. But the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), the licensing exam for nurses, must be done in person. With fewer locations open - and fewer students allowed at each location due to social distancing restrictions - the prospective RN’s face delays in their licensing process.


That could put some in a career no-man’s land. A campaign is underway to keep the executive order in effect throughout 2020.


McPeak-Larocca remains convinced that graduating nurses are suitably trained, despite the disrupted spring term. Much of the interactive and hands-on learning at GCC had already been completed, and there were efforts to continue clinical learning while other GCC programs went remote, though that attempt was soon abandoned.

Greenfield CC will begin the 2020-21 academic year in remote education, but provisions for traditional learning are expected in some cases for nursing, she said.


“The advice I would give to graduating seniors is to focus on the thing you have control over,” said Kathleen Pont, associate professor and director of the accelerated second degree program in the Elms College School of Nursing. That means preparing for the NCLEX, she said.


"I would recommend (graduates) keep applying for jobs, cast the net wide, expect the process to take longer during this shutdown, and expect innovative interviewing techniques and multiple platforms. Never turn down an interview - it’s always good practice,'' Westfield State assistant professor Joan Kuhnly said.


In the meantime, nursing students know the need to keep focus, but the challenges are significant.


“My distraction comes more from finding a new balance between my studies and my family as both of my children, 14 and 8, are now learning from home as well,” said Ashley Boudreau, a 34-year-old Elms College senior. “Helping them navigate, not only a new way of learning, but the emotions associated with the social isolation on top of my responsibilities as a senior nursing student certainly adds stress to my life.”


"Knowing that those private student loans are due immediately following graduation, despite hospitals not hiring is a burden as well,'' said Boudreau, a Wilbraham resident whose early job search suggests at least some waiting time.

“I left active United States Air Force duty about a year ago to pursue a career in nursing,” said Babatunde Olatinwo, a 28-year-old UMass junior in the accelerated nursing bachelor’s degree program who is on pace to graduate next February. Now a reservist at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, he is pursuing his degree on the G.I. Bill.


“The faculty and students are working hand in hand to achieve the best educational outcomes in such challenging circumstances,” said Olatinwo, a native of Monroe, Connecticut, who lives in Springfield.


With campuses closed, online learning has been functional, and students consistently praise the effort, flexibility and understanding of their faculty members. But no one pretends it’s ideal, especially in a field whose very existence is based on human contact.


“Nursing is a profession where the emphasis of human connection is a significant ingredient taught in nursing school. The students are looking forward to returning to their clinical rotations where this interaction can occur,” said Jamie Rivera, interim chair of the Nursing Department at Westfield State.


“Online has worked for most of my classes; however my internship experience was cut very short. I only got half of the time I was supposed to have,” Schmidt said.


“Internship is where we are supposed to learn to become independent and put together everything we have learned,” she said. “I was just starting to scratch the surface with my skills. I wish I was able to get more time in.”

What these students all share is the conviction that their chosen field is more desperately needed than ever — even as the reasons to pursue it in the 21st century are the same as Florence Nightingale’s in the 19th.


“Nurses leave families every day to go into work knowing they may be treating someone with mental health issues or someone exposed to infectious disease,” Boudreau said. “They put their life, their emotions, their biases on hold when they put on those stethoscopes.”


“Nursing is still what it always has been — caring for people. That’s exactly what draws me to it.”