By Dave Paone
They’re not what one might expect.
The students in the nursing department at Ulster County Community College in Stone Ridge, that is. They’re much older than the typical community college student, some well into their thirties, and far more males than one might presume in a nursing program.
Perhaps the one thing that makes them different from their college counterparts is their calling to help their fellow human beings in their time of medical need. This they will accomplish as nurses.
But before any of them can call him- or herself a Registered Nurse, they all must complete the required courses followed by the required test.
The endless list of courses includes Psychology, two Anatomy & Physiology classes, two English classes, Life Span Development, Literacy, Microbiology, Sociology, Algebra, Nursing Dosage Calculations and Nursing I through IV, for a total of 72 credits.
Then there’s a background check, drug screening, CPR certification and clinical facility requirements.
“This, what we’re doing right now, is the hardest part of any nursing profession,” said 34 year-old Beau States, a second-year nursing student at Ulster.
“And they say that the two-year programs are actually harder because they’re more compact and more dense as opposed to spread out over four years. But I’ve got four years invested with two years of prerequisites and then two years of nursing school, as most of my colleagues.”
By attending a community college students save tens of thousands of dollars they would otherwise spend at a four-year school, according to Jody Bivona Mesches, the nursing department chairperson at Ulster.
Muzit Mikael, 34, was a Licensed Practical Nurse in her native country of Eritrea in east Africa but says the bureaucracy of transferring her credentials to the US is so difficult it was easier to start the nursing program from scratch at Ulster. Plus she’s pursuing a full RN degree. While attending Ulster, Muzit works weekends at the Kingston Hospital, although she doesn’t receive college credit for that.
Stephanie Thorpe, 28, received a Bachelor’s degree from nearby SUNY New Paltz in 2008 as well as an Emergency Medical Technician certification, but had been considering a nursing career for a while. So she completed the two year’s worth of prerequisites and is now a second-year nursing student at Ulster.
“There’s only a few that are 19, 20 years-old in this program. It’s mainly returning adults,” said Beau.
Some of them are embarking on their second career while others already have a lower-level nursing certificate and are looking to become an RN.
Currently many states, including New York, require only an Associate’s degree to be an RN, but some states, including New York, are looking to mandate a Bachelor’s degree.
But perhaps it’s not the coursework but the licensing test the state gives that’s the most challenging. After completing their AS, the final step to becoming a nurse is the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses.
According to Stephanie, a big part of taking (and passing) the exam is “thinking like a nurse.”
That means taking the given information, applying it in a specific scenario and then choosing the correct course of action.
“Actually, all answers are the correct answers but one would be more correct over the other,” said Beau. “You have to critical think and prioritize.”
“It’s very scientifically based but at the same time you’re having to apply that to the human condition,” said 30 year-old Nathaniel Mehlman, another second-year nursing student. “It’s not a math test.“
That human condition is addressed through “a large psych component that’s peppered through the program,” said Nathaniel.
Part of the human condition can get very disgusting. Medical professionals deal with blood, bodily fluids and pain and suffering regularly, which many people can’t stomach.
“Somehow during the moment you just deal with it. You just deal with it as it arises,” said Beau.
“I think it’s also that strong desire to help people,” said Stephanie, who also works at Kingston Hospital.
“You kind of push all that aside and when you’re in the situation — the moment — you think about that patient and your desire to help them.”
Having worked as a professional nurse in Africa, Muzit saw a lot of suffering and death. “I used to go home every day, crying,” she said.
While death and suffering is part of the job, Nathaniel notes, “It’s such a small percentage of what goes on,” and prefers to look at the positive side of what he does, which alleviates that suffering.
For centuries nursing was considered “women’s work” and was exclusively performed by females. All of that has changed and with so many males pursuing the occupation (about a third of the department at Ulster) they proudly refer to themselves as “durses,” or “dude-nurses.”
There’s a practical side to having durses on hand in hospitals. Beau noted with obesity on the rise in America, caring for extremely heavy patients is a problem and male nurses may be better qualified to deal with them.
When Nathaniel decided to become a nurse his friends and family were very supportive. “They were pretty psyched that I have more direction in my life,” he said.
According to Jody, the pass rates for the licensing boards for community college students are higher than those of four-year college students, although she’s not sure why. She thinks it’s possibly due to community colleges’ focus on direct clinical practice, skill development and smaller class sizes.
“We’re able to spend more one-on-one time and develop a relationship with the students,” she said.
However, Ulster turns down two to three times the number of students it accepts into the program because of limited clinical sites (i.e. hospitals) in the area where students need to clock in work time.
Students begin clinical practice their first week of school so they can take what they’ve learned and apply it to actual patients right away.
On a rare occasion the reality of being around sick people would cause a student to drop out of the program, but with the student body being older, many of them have had experience in the field and are over that. Back in the day when most of them were right out of high school, it happened more often.
While the short-term goal for community college nursing students is to receive their AS, pass the boards and become an RN, it’s not always the last step.
“I know people who are nurse-attorneys, nurse-entrepreneurs, nurse-practitioners, nurse-educators, nurse-researchers,“ said Jody. “Once you’re a nurse, the sky’s open.”