Meghan Wenzinger, a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, recalled her mother—who is a nurse practitioner—receiving a letter from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo last spring, asking for extra health care support for COVID-19 patients in New York City.
Wanting to help but also lacking experience, she became motivated to continue her nursing education.
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Wenzinger was not the only one inspired to pursue the nursing field. In 2020, enrollment in entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs increased by 5.6%. Master’s and Doctor of Nursing practice programs also rose by 4.1% and 8.9%, according to the American Associate of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).
“Health care workers received a great deal of media exposure this year,” said Dr. Lisa Muirhead, associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University. “This exposure allowed people to see nurses in action and the impact they have on people’s lives. Generation Z is seeking careers that provide meaning and they have identified nursing as one of the career choices that provides a lifetime of powerful impact.”
However, the transition to remote courses—especially in a field heavily reliant on clinical practicum experiences and hands-on learning—proved to be challenging.
To adjust, schools such as Purdue University Global, launched an online acute care nurse practitioner skills lab. Through virtual reality and immersive learning experiences, students were able to participate in “true-to-life scenarios” as well as develop their decision-making and motor skills.
“Our data analytics from initial student cohorts demonstrated a previously unseen level of engagement, completion and success,” said Dr. Michele D. McMahon, associate dean for graduate nursing at Purdue University Global. “As a university, using a targeted approach to ensure successful implementation of these new technologies has really spoken to our virtual agility as a team in meeting the needs of our students in a sustainable and relevant way.”
After learning online for a semester, Wenzinger experienced an in-person clinical last fall. She felt stressed and concerned around the risks associated with being in a limited socially distant environment.
Months later, after being vaccinated in January, Wenzinger looked forward to participating in face-to-face clinicals. However, one was put online.
“I sort of have to take it upon myself to get some experience in that field because doing it virtually, we weren’t really able to interact with patients,” she said. “I’m trying to either weave that in this summer or next year. But it’ll be senior year at that point and I’ll have to start applying for jobs. I definitely do feel that I missed out on some of those opportunities.”
Online learning was also challenging for Paige Steiner. However, she has found comfort in a cohort of peers.
“Everybody’s challenge is kind of consistent right now,” said Steiner, a student in her final semester of an accelerated bachelor’s nursing program at the University of Rochester (UR). “It has been really nice to build a community in my cohort because we are all in it together. Our frustrations are the same, and nobody else gets it who is not one of us literally doing it day in and day out.”
Beyond coursework, nursing students have been heavily involved in their local communities.
“Our students have shown exceptional resilience and determination as well as their passion and commitment to our communities to make a significant impact in fighting the virus and assisting their local community to respond and recover from the pandemic sequelae,” said McMahon.
In New York, for example, Cuomo signed an executive order to allow students in their final year of their nursing programs to administer COVID-19 vaccines.
To adapt clinicals, students at schools such as New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing have worked at COVID-19 vaccine clinics and call centers.
“I personally take my students into communities of color, specifically Brooklyn and Queens, and I’m working right alongside them,” said Dr. Selena Gilles, director of the undergraduate program at NYU’s College of Nursing. “They volunteer every week to administer vaccines. So even the students who have graduated, even during the break, they’re really working hard. We have some really amazing students and I’m so proud of them.”
Being heavily involved in healthcare has strengthened Wenzinger’s ambitions to make changes to the system, especially as racial and health inequities are further brought to light during the pandemic.
“It has definitely been demoralizing to see the lack of structural support and resources for health care workers,” she added. “Being in school, being taught how to cope with the inevitable burnout once we enter the workforce was and is pretty upsetting.”
Dr. Kathy H. Rideout, dean of the school of nursing and professor of clinical nursing at UR, found the silver lining of the past year to be that nurses are “finally” being recognized for the “incredible work they have been doing.”
“I would love for that spotlight to continue to shine,” she said. “We could not have met the challenges of this pandemic without nursing. I love the fact that there has been such a renewed attention on the value of nurses because we are a profession that is irreplaceable.”
Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].