When Alyssa Ehlke decided she wanted to become a nurse in 2014, she had no idea of the surprises being a student in 2020 would hold.
Now, as a student in the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s nursing program, Ehlke is one of the UW-Green Bay nursing students providing Wisconsin residents with COVID-19 vaccines that promise to bring life back to some sort of normal in the midst of a pandemic.
“I think that there’s always a little bit of anxiety when you know there is something that is such an unknown (like the pandemic)… it’s frightening because we’re so needed,” she said. “But then, at the same time, I realized how important the job that you’re going to have is. I think that was the biggest realization to me. It’s like ‘Oh, okay, my job is going to be something that’s going to make a difference.’”
Ehlke, 30, already has a bachelor’s degree in math and psychology, and originally wanted to go into teaching. But after working alongside people in healthcare professions, she realized nursing was what she really wanted to do. Now, as a sophomore nursing student, she is working as a CNA at an assisted living facility while taking classes in the nursing program, doing clinicals at the VA hospital and helping to administer vaccines to veterans who served their country.
“I think we are so fortunate to be able to have that opportunity, which is actually exciting,” she said. “We were told that if it weren’t for pandemic, we would not get the experience of doing all these vaccinations… We’re learning more about applying what we’re learning in classes to real-life situations and what’s going on in the world today.”
Launching a new pre-licensure nursing program in the middle of a pandemic presented challenges to administrators in finding practical hands-on experience for the students, said Christine Vandenhouten, chair of Nursing & Health Studies at UW-Green Bay.
“Many of our counterparts at other nursing programs saw health systems like our local hospitals, reducing the number of students who could be in a given clinical setting by half,” Vandenhouten said. “What that meant was that the educational institutions had to double the number of faculty to teach and find twice as many clinical settings to engage them in clinical learning…
“Planning for this spring semester for traditional programming was particularly challenging because we were faced with the need to create simulated clinical experiences conducted in a skills lab or find twice as many faculty and clinical units to give students the necessary clinical experiences,” she added.
With the approval of the COVID-19 vaccines in the fall, and distribution beginning in the winter, having students assist in administering vaccine helped the program provide students with a unique clinical learning experience.
But it also helps the communities in and around Green Bay. Nursing students are supporting vaccination clinics in Green Bay at Aurora BayCare Medical Center and the Milo C. Huempfner VA Clinic, and in Manitowoc at the Lakeshore Community Health Center, a Federally Qualified Health Center, Vandenhouten said. Additionally, she is in talks with other communities and health systems to assist their efforts in the future.
Students get academic credit for their participation, as well as real-world experience. In addition, they get a $500 credit towards their tuition if they work 16 hours in the Covid clinics. Vandenhouten said that as of today, 27 of the 34 traditional BSN students have participated in the vaccination program. The Nursing program students will continue working in the vaccination clinics in April with the goal of having all 34 students participate.
Jordan Barnes, 22, who is also working towards her bachelor’s in nursing, said she was excited to learn that she would be volunteering in health care in the middle of the pandemic.
“I was excited when I found out we would have the opportunity to administer COVID-19 vaccines to the public,” she said. “It was an exciting time because every vaccine I administered was one step closer to life going back to normal. I was able to learn the science behind the vaccine and how it works in our body, so I was able to ease the nerves of some patients and make them feel more comfortable with their choice to get the vaccine.”
Barnes started her college career with the goal of getting a degree in Human Development with minors in Psychology and German so she could go into counseling. But in her junior year, she decided she wanted to go into nursing instead to do more for her patients.
“My mom works as a hospice nurse and seeing her compassion as she shares her experiences with me is what really drove me in that direction,” she said.
After graduating with her Human Development degree in December 2020, she started working on her nursing degree. Now, as she works in healthcare settings as part of her training, the experiences, and the pandemic, reinforce her decision.
“I do not think I had any concerns going into nursing school in the middle of a pandemic. If anything, it made me feel like I knew for sure that this is the career path for me. Knowingly walking into what some people may refer to as ‘a disaster’ and continuing says something about that person and what kind of caretaker they will become,” she said.
The most surprising part about the experience, she said, was the reaction of the patients.
“I did not realize how grateful and excited patients would be as they walked into the clinic for their first dose of the vaccine,” she said. “I know that the vaccine is being given in waves and so it is eye opening that people are on waitlists while some people are passing on it when it is made available to them.”
Ehlke, who contracted COVID-19 last year while working at a local long-term care facility as a certified nursing assistant, said reactions to the vaccine fell into one of two categories.
“You have two different spectrums. You get the people who were like, ‘Oh, shoot. How is this going to affect me? Is this going to work? They’re hearing stories about how we’re going be getting a booster so is this really going to be effective?’” she said. “And then you have the people who come in and they’re so excited. They’re like ‘This is just one step forward to us not having to worry about going out in public and catching this virus…’”
Participating in the vaccination effort has been frightening, but fulfilling Ehlke said.
“At first, it was nerve-wracking because, you know, you are administering a shot into someone’s arm, but afterwards, it kind of makes you realize that you’re a part of history,” she said. “My dad contacted me afterwards and said, ‘You know, you will one day look back on this and realize that you are doing something that not many people will ever get to experience.’ This is something that is going to make a difference in a lot of people’s lives. And like I said, that’s kind of the reason why I wanted to go into nursing in the first place.”
By freelance writer Liz Carey
Photos by UW-Green Bay’s Michael Shaw and Christine Vandenhouten
Cover photo: Nursing student Precious Vang.