My Final Year of Nursing at Western
Hi, my name is Zarah, and I am a Nursing Student at Western University going into my final year. In this article, I will be discussing my journey in nursing school, and also how the COVID-19 pandemic changed aspects of the program.
What influenced your decision in choosing nursing as opposed to other professions in the healthcare industry? How did this decision impact you in high school?
I found that nursing gave me the opportunity to interact with patients on a deeper level compared to other healthcare professions. I learned that nurses are an integral part of patient healthcare because they are the person that the patient interacts with the most. Patients and the healthcare team really depend on nurses to observe changes in patient health and maintain flow.
Nursing definitely has a science component to it, but it also has a social and emotional component where the connection that you form with patients helps promote holistic health, not just health from a biological perspective. I also learned that a nursing degree is a degree with endless opportunities. Beyond patient care, students can also find opportunities with research, public health and management. It was all these factors that led me to pursue nursing.
Initially in high school, I did not consider nursing until OUAC application deadlines came around. I always knew that I wanted to go into a career in healthcare, and as such, my courses were geared towards science. In grade 12, I chose not to take some courses like calculus because nursing only required 1 math course, and I did not want a second math course to jeopardize my GPA.
Why did you decide to pursue Nursing specifically at Western?
I found that the nursing program at Western really integrated the social and physiological components of health, which I really liked. It emphasizes the importance of holistic health, and facets of the program focus on accessibility to healthcare in rural and indigenous communities. Another key component of this program that stood out to me is its focus on the social determinants of health. The nursing program at Western allows students to be involved in patient advocacy, particularly policy development in healthcare, which I also really appreciated.
Additionally, Western’s nursing building is new and has many simulation labs that we can use for our clinical hours. It is also a tight-knit undergraduate program. This allows us to really get to know our professors, clinical instructors, and classmates, and that’s something that I really liked. Last but not least, I found that the course structure was very manageable. The course load was not as heavy in comparison to other nursing programs.
How is the program structure?
Western Nursing is a collaborative program with Fanshawe College. This means that some students will be at Fanshawe for the first two years but they will be taking the same courses. In third and fourth year, everyone is at the main university campus.
In the first year, we have 4 hours a week of clinical practice. This is entirely labs and simulations, where we learn how to assess patients. This is done through initial interviews with standardized patients (actors) and they, along with professors and clinical instructors, give feedback on how we interacted with them. This allows us to get more comfortable with interacting with people and trains us on how to respond to challenges.
The simulations carry over into second year but they are more in depth, and we now have 8 hours of clinicals per week. Second year also provides some students with the opportunity to do a community-based placement, depending on the number of available community partners. This includes but is not limited to: public health nurses, soup kitchens, dementia centres, childcare centres, etc. The overarching theme of community-based placements is that they are social service oriented. Second year clinical practices are also where you start learning about medications and technical skills such as; wound care, IVs, and injection administration.
Third year starts to get heavier because of the clinical component. Your placement is in the hospital both semesters, and you are placed in London and the surrounding areas. In the first semester, it’s 12 hours once a week, and the second semester is 12 hours, 2 times a week for six weeks. The hospital environment is where you learn a lot of technical skills, have interactions with real patients, learn how to be a part of multidisciplinary teams, work with other healthcare professionals, and learn about healthcare diseases and specialities in the hospital.
At Western, in third year, you have the opportunity to do an accelerated fourth year. 120 students can sign up to complete their degree in December, which means they continue throughout the summer after third year, and finish their degree early.
Fourth year is also quite heavy because of clinical practice. In the first semester, you are working twice a week for a total of 12 shifts within the semester. In the second semester, you do an integrated practicum (consolidation), which is 456 hours! This is your final placement, where you are assigned a preceptor. Whereas all the other placements, you are placed randomly, this is the chance where you get a preference for you placement (where you want go in terms of the specialty)
What are some of the extracurriculars you pursued alongside your nursing degree?
In first and second year, I was involved in Black Students Association at Western.
I enjoyed my time with BSA because it allowed me to feel more comfortable at school. It also provides a sense of community and familiarity and I got to meet a lot of different people.
I am also a part of Western and Fanshawe Nursing Students Association (WFNSA), where you can take part as an executive member to influence the nursing community at Western. You also get the opportunity to interact with upper year students, plan events for other nursing students, and work with organizations like the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) and Canadian Nurses Association (CNA).
In retrospect, I wish I did more extracurricular activities because it gives a break from school, and that is good for your mental health and well-being. It also exposes you to different students at Western who are not in your program which helps with your social health. Additionally, having extracurriculars is always good for post-graduate opportunities.
How did COVID-19 affect facets of your program i.e. placements?
Once school closed, all clinical hours (placement and labs) were cancelled, which was the largest downside. There was a lot of uncertainty in the third year to plan in advance. We shifted a very practical, hands-on, application based program entirely online, which was an interesting change. In my third year, I ended up securing my placements but the continuity of placements was based on the number of COVID cases. As a result, if there was an outbreak present, placements were cancelled, and placement was either done through zoom, or the remaining time was used for NCLEX prep.
Overall, I was lucky to still have placements as many schools transitioned into virtual placements. I was also able to see the emphasis on infection control practices because of the pandemic. Students did not have to make up for incomplete hours due to the pandemic, but we did miss out on placement opportunities because the school prioritized safety over everything else at that point. In my third year, the mental health simulations that happen in nursing buildings did not happen due to COVID. While it was still okay doing the simulation online, I soon learned that the body language and energy sensed in a mental health simulation is much different in person.
So what’s next for you?
I’m heading into my final year, and am placed in cardiology at University Hospital, which I am looking forward to. My focus is soon going to shift to my integrated practicum, and I am applying to hopefully get into the obstetrics speciality.
This is where I get to consolidate everything that I’ve learned from year 1 to year 3, and how each year has an influence on each other. After graduation, I will be preparing for the NCLEX exam, which is essential for you to pursue a career in nursing. It is a very application-based exam, with a few pharmacology concepts as well.
A few years after I graduate, I intend to advance my nursing career by doing a Masters Degree, in hopes of becoming a nurse practitioner or clinical educator.
What’s your advice for incoming nursing students?
In grade 11, make sure that you have the necessary courses for nursing school. Most nursing programs require biology, chemistry, 1 math course, and English. Especially with COVID, the grades required are competitive, so make sure that you meet the average requirements. Most programs also require students to complete the CASPR test in grade 12, before applying to nursing programs.
When looking at particular nursing schools, look at the program structure. For example, see which schools offer the most clinical hours if that’s what you prefer. Look into how the course load is separated, and whether you want to stay home or go away for school. Also consider the clinical opportunities that are present in the area of the school and see if you’re interested in them.
Once you are in the undergraduate program, it is important to recognize that high school study methods may not be suitable. Time management also becomes really important; you have to figure out what to do with the free time that you have and dedicate enough time for class work. In placements, make sure that you prepare in advance and plan out your day. However, it is important to recognize that you have to be flexible and adaptable to changes. You also have to be punctual so you have enough time to do some research about the patients that you are assigned to and about the medications being used. Being self aware is important too; know where you need extra help and who to contact for extra support. The work can get heavy and it’s a good idea to find people in the program to study together with and keep each other accountable.
Remember to be patient if you are not understanding concepts; there are a LOT of things that you are learning within four years.
Look out for opportunities that allow you to build transferable skills. For example, after my first year, I looked into personal support worker (PSW) opportunities, and this helped me become more comfortable with patient care, which is a very transferable skill.
All in all, take each day as a learning opportunity, and don’t let one day influence your goals and practices. Enjoy the process and the program and remember that there are always a variety of opportunities out there for you.
Interviewed and Transcribed by Divya Balendra
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