Every first-year student’s transition to college is a time of excitement, stress, and searching—for extracurriculars, friends, mentors, and a major. Entering undergraduates at the Connell School, meanwhile, have already chosen their career paths. Their first semester schedules include two Core Curriculum courses (perhaps in philosophy, theology, or history) and a pair of required and rigorous science courses, Anatomy & Physiology I and Life Science Chemistry, each of which includes a weekly three-hour lab. And while these courses provide foundational knowledge, they often strike students as disconnected from the practice of nursing. “Between the workload and the increased expectations, freshmen can feel isolated from the nursing school,” says Sean Clarke, associate dean for undergraduate programs at the Connell School.
Hence the overhaul of NURS1010: Professional Development Seminar, a one-credit, one-semester, pass-fail, peer-led program established in 2011, and bolstered in fall 2017 to help novice undergraduates “understand what the journey in nursing looks like and to become part of the nursing culture,” says Clarke. Organized around weekly, open-ended small-group sessions, alumni panels, and faculty and staff presentations on effective study strategies, campus culture, and career fields in nursing, the program’s goal is to help freshmen develop a support network of classmates and faculty, and a strong sense of a path forward over their next four years and beyond. And since the vast majority of nursing students will be the first in their families to work in health care, Clarke observes, “The sooner we immerse them in what they signed up for, the better nurses we’ll prepare.”
The seminar core
Small discussion groups, each run by a junior and senior volunteer, make up the essence of the first-year seminar. “Hearing stories from a student who just recently went through what you’re going through is much more impactful than hearing it from a faculty member,” says Amy Gribaudo, assistant director of undergraduate programs. This year, 30 juniors and seniors co-led 105 freshmen in groups of six to eight.
From their first week on the Heights until they took their first final exams, freshmen met for an hour once a week during the fall semester at study lounges, Hillside Caf., the Stokes Amphitheater, or another location chosen by the group leader. They talked about course selection, study skills, self-care, and incorporating Jesuit values into both nursing practice and daily life. Junior leader Julia Cardwell, a native of Maryland, said that she not only coached her group in adjusting to more demanding classes and finding study partners who share their learning styles (e.g., sonic vs. visual), she also created what she called an “open, inviting space” in which students shared their homesickness and personal stories of what brought them to nursing. Freshmen often texted and e-mailed their leaders, asking for advice. (The mentor role, notes Cardwell, has “given me added affirmation and confidence as a nurse.”) In addition to attending small group sessions, students met one-on-one each week with a different member of the group over coffee, lunch, or a homework study session.
John Snider ’21, from eastern Maine, said that early on, the seven other students in his small group were his “go-tos” for “studying and venting and occasionally commiserating about the journey.” When he arrived at Boston College, he said he “felt like I had to be this perfect person all the time. But when you open up to the group, you realize everyone feels that pressure. And the mentors help you realize you don’t have to be that....The group was a space to breathe.”
The entire first-year class gets together for an ice cream social in October and a holiday gathering in December. But the entire cohort gathered seven other times during the semester—for presentations on time management and sleep from the Office of Health Promotion; a session on diversity and cultural sensitivity led by the student organization FACES; and for retreats and conversations about student culture, civility, and professionalism organized by the Center for Student Formation.
I had to be this perfect person all the time. But when you open up to the group, you realize everyone feels that pressure. And the mentors help you realize you don’t have to be that....The group was a space to breathe.
In late November, on two separate evenings, the seminar hosted two panels of recent Connell School alumni, who shared accounts of their student days and their experiences as early-career nurses. Five panelists each night fielded some two dozen questions about their transitions from high school to Boston College, clinical rotations, balancing work with extracurriculars, finding a niche in nursing, and the job hunt.
Unfailingly encouraging, honest, and charmingly self-deprecating, they spoke candidly about moments of anxiety, from accidentally breaking a dean’s calculator, to failing a first-year chemistry exam, to going home in tears after shifts during their first year as nurses. One alumna said she felt so overwhelmed at a hospital, “It took me six months to not feel on my way to work that I was going to vomit.”
Still, they each ref lected that their training at the Connell School made them much better prepared for the pressures of nursing than most. They had learned the value of attentive, personalized care. “Always ask your patients if they want to brush their teeth,” advised Annie O’Malley ’16, who’s now at Boston Children’s Hospital. What they learned in Core Curriculum theology courses helped a few nurses incorporate patients’ individual faiths into their care. And CSON’s rigorous curriculum helped several alums through the post-graduate NCLEX (National Council Licensure Exam), the “worst month of studying of your life,” as one alumna described it, and added: “You’ll find you’re much more prepared than you think.”
She prodded students to sign up for as wide a range of clinical rotations as possible, and to take advantage of faculty office hours and international nursing trips. Others stressed the importance of taking time to exercise, sleep, explore the city with friends, unwind. O’Malley said, “I remember sitting where you were wanting to punch anyone who told me to take care of myself. But it really, really helps.”
Outside the classroom
Beyond the first-year seminar, the Connell School offers several opportunities for students to complement the curriculum and their clinical experiences with insight and perspective throughout their four years.
Second-year students can participate in the two-day SCRUBS (Sophomore Connell Retreat for Undergraduate B.S. Students) retreat in Falmouth, Massachusetts, which offers time for ref lection and prepares them for upcoming academic and professional transitions. (More than 95 percent of sophomores attended the third annual retreat in February 2018.)
All upperclassmen can apply to attend the school’s nursing service trips to Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Haiti.
And in March 2018, some 50 undergraduates attended Shift Change, a day-long pilot retreat for seniors to contemplate the pending transition to their lives as nurses.
“Nursing is a rigorous major with a direct path into a profession,” says Amy Gribaudo, assistant director of undergraduate programs. It’s invaluable to provide opportunities at the beginning, middle, and end of student nurses’ undergraduate experience for “reflection about themselves, their futures, and their place in the world.” ▪