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Nursing students Isabel Blow, Lauren Holtzclaw and Jocelyn Yanez

The COVID-19 class

Nursing students adapt during pandemic

Jocelyn Yanez, Boma Olade, Lauren Holtzclaw, and Isabel Blow began Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth’s Pacesetter Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in January 2020. Little did they know that 2020 would become the “Year of the Nurse” in more ways than one. 

All four eager to learn, they began their classes in person. They enjoyed being in the classroom, interacting with their peers and professors. The hands-on experience was challenging and eye-opening. It would lead them down a path to eventually become nurses. 

With only two months of in-person learning under their belts, students and faculty found themselves shifting, making the challenging transition from in-person classes to virtual ones due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Understandably, Yanez, Olade, Holtzclaw, and Blow were concerned for their futures and career paths. How would they successfully master so many skills like drawing blood or starting an IV? After all, human connection is such a big part of the nursing profession. 

“We were definitely out of our comfort zone and had to get creative and quickly,” said Kristin Ownby, PhD, RN, ACHPN, AOCN, ANP-BC, associate professor of clinical nursing, and director of the Pacesetter program at the time. “Our faculty adapted, modifying our in-person clinical simulations to virtual and classroom lectures to online.” 

Yanez, who was pursuing a degree in public health before starting the Pacesetter program, said that while moving to the virtual environment wasn’t optimal, she was determined to stick with it. Watching the heroic acts of nurses as the pandemic played out only strengthened her desire to become a nurse. 

“The reason I wanted to go to nursing school was that I wanted to help others,” said Yanez. “I felt helpless being on the sidelines and was wishing I was already a nurse, so I could jump in and assist.” 

Olade felt the same way. A new mom, she decided to go to nursing school because she had a drive and a passion for helping others. This desire was only reinforced during the pandemic, and if there’s one thing she learned about being a nurse, it’s always to “expect the unexpected.” 

Holtzclaw, who was working on a degree in exercise science before deciding to switch gears and apply to nursing school, said she watched how the health care community has come together during the pandemic and wanted to be part of it.  

“One observation I’ve noticed about nurses throughout this whole ordeal has been the amount of sacrifice they make for themselves and their families,” she said. “It’s that giving spirit I witnessed, not only during COVID-19 but also during the February freeze, that inspired me and kept me pushing forward to obtain my degree.” 

Wanting to blend her love of science, education, and people, Blow always knew she wanted to be a nurse. She said the pandemic opened her eyes to the many roles nurses play. 

“A nurse is a caregiver, but as we’ve seen during COVID, they’ve become so much more than that,” she said. “Because family members weren’t able to be present, they became friends and a support system to patients and their loved ones.” 

She also realized that nurses need to be flexible at learning new tasks and taking on new responsibilities. “Everyone had to jump in and help with COVID-19 patients, regardless of whether they had experience with respiratory patients or not,” she said. 

While all four students felt some apprehension about being ready for their clinical rotations after taking a large majority of their classes online, the faculty instilled confidence in them and came up with out-of-the-box solutions to help them learn and grasp concepts. When they were finally able to restart their in-person rotations, they felt like they had a firm foundation of the basics that would carry them across the finish line. 

Interestingly, several adjustments the faculty made to the Pacesetter curriculum during the pandemic worked so well that they integrated them permanently into the courses moving forward. 

“We learned together along with our students," said Erica Yu, PhD, RN, ANP, associate dean for undergraduate studies. “As we came together virtually and adapted, we saw the confidence grow in our students. We are extremely proud of this class for preserving despite some extremely challenging and unusual circumstances.” 

Anitra Frederick, PhD, RN, CNE, assistant professor of clinical nursing in the Department of Undergraduate Studies and current director of the Pacesetter program, said that making the switch from an in-person to the online format required a lot of planning and organization upfront. All of that paid off when she saw students helping administer COVID-19 vaccines to the community. 

“What a great moment in time to be part of,” she said. “The experience for these nursing students went full circle: from witnessing the uncertain onset of the pandemic to being an integral part of the solution and caring for our community.” 

All three faculty members – Ownby, Yu, and Frederick – agreed that the pandemic shined a light on their chosen profession. 

“Nursing is a calling, and it’s not for everyone,” said Yu. “You have to sacrifice, and you are going to navigate some uncertain times. Your resiliency will carry you through.” 

For Ownby, the pandemic was sobering. She and her colleagues knew what their peers were facing and desperately wanted to help. Frederick said the pandemic surfaced a sense of immense pride in herself and for nurses everywhere. 

As for Yanez, Olade, Holtzclaw, and Blow, they are on pace to join the nursing profession after graduation in May 2021. Armed with valuable insights and an even greater admiration and respect for their fellow nurses, they are prepared and ready to take the next steps into their meaningful careers.

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Student Boma Olade speaks at a check presentation from Fajita Pete's.
Student Boma Olade speaks at a check presentation from Fajita Pete's.