On a snowy Valentine’s Day weekend, while many of their classmates were celebrating or skiing, some 70 Connell School of Nursing sophomores spent two days off campus, reflecting on their experiences at Boston College, and the academic and professional transitions ahead.
It was the first-ever SCRUBS (Sophomore Connell Retreat for Undergraduate B.S. Students), a program of talks, contemplation, and conversation held February 12–14 at the Wonderland Conference Center in Sharon, Massachusetts. The inaugural retreat, a collaboration between the Center for Student Formation and the Connell School, featured presentations by professors, alumni, and upperclassmen, along with professional development workshops, small-group breakout discussions, and unstructured time for students to relax and recharge during the heart of the academic year.
The idea for SCRUBS grew out of Dean Susan Gennaro’s annual year-end discussions with graduating Connell School students. In recent years, as she’s spoken with seniors about their experiences at Boston College, Gennaro has noticed a thread: Many students told her that sophomore year had been a challenging time in their nursing education, a kind of crossroads in their academic and social lives between the foundational classes all freshmen take together in the first year and the more specialized clinical practice placements and advanced coursework that define the last two years of the program.
“In many ways,” said retreat co-organizer and director of the Center for Student Formation Mike Sacco, “the middle of sophomore year is the perfect time to get students together to reflect—they’re serious enough about their major and immersed enough in the college culture to have fruitful discussions.”
CSON’s Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs Sean Clarke and Assistant Dean of Student Services, Diversity, and Inclusion Julianna Gonzalez collaborated with the Center for Student Formation’s Sacco and Tim Mulvey, assistant director of Collaborative Initiatives, to translate some of the concepts and traditions of longstanding Boston College retreats such as KAIROS into the context of nursing education. A goal of SCRUBS, Mulvey said, was to customize the formation experience for Connell School students.
Approximately two-thirds of the 110 members of the class of 2018 attended the retreat. They were drawn in part by an opportunity to prepare for and think about the academic changes ahead—specialized upper-class courses and simulation labs; the “transition to clinical"—and career choices after graduation. But the appeal was personal and social as well. Freshman-year friends often see less of each other during sophomore year, said Bethany Candage ’18. “This weekend was something I didn’t know I needed until I was here—a chance to reconnect with my classmates away from BC.”
In particular, the small groups offered a chance for those sophomores who had started their clinical placements to share insights with classmates who were about to begin their own work in hospitals and health centers. “It’s good to reconnect now, just when we’re starting to break off and specialize,” said Trevor Golden ’18. “It’s valuable to gather together again before we go out into the world.” Senior leaders were also able to speak to the experience of starting to work in a hospital.
Over the course of the weekend, 10 Connell School seniors, five faculty members, and five recent alumni gave talks on topics such as “Choosing Nursing,” “Clinical Leadership,” and “Social Life as a Nurse.” Alumni and seniors shared pivotal experiences that helped them gain confidence in themselves as nursing professionals and develop their individual voices in the workplace. They emphasized the importance of forming personal and professional bonds with other nurses.
During her first clinical placement, Gabija Pileika ’16 said, she met a stroke victim who had lost his ability to speak. After struggling with how to best advocate for the patient, she realized she could encourage other members of the team to ask “yes or no” questions to communicate with him. That early experience, Pileika said, helped her understand and embrace her role as a nurse. She encouraged sophomores to “be that voice that your patient doesn’t have.”
On Friday night and Saturday, the talks were followed by small-group reflection, discussion, and activities. A Connell School senior led each group, lending perspective on work in hospitals and clinics and advanced coursework. Of her clinical placement, group leader Sarah DiGirolamo ’16 said, “At the time, it was useful to talk to older students to hear that feeling overwhelmed at first was okay; it was actually normal.”
On Saturday afternoon, students took advantage of a block of free time to attend Mass; relax at the conference center; or, in spite of the snow lingering on the ground, play basketball outside.
Sacco began the day Sunday morning by addressing the elephant in the room—it was, after all, Valentine’s Day. He encouraged students to think of the holiday as a chance to reflect on the role of love in their lives in a broad sense—“a time to think about who you are and who you want to be and how you want to love.” The conference then concluded with a look toward the future, as faculty, seniors, and a panel of five alumni discussed challenges such as balancing clinical practice with coursework, making challenging career choices, and finding one’s place in the world of nursing.
Assistant Professor Allyssa Harris, a women’s health nurse practitioner who earned her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. from the Connell School, recalled the path she took from her first job at a nursing home, to working as a post-partum nurse, to specialization at large hospitals and community health centers in the Boston area. Reflecting on her own winding road, Harris reminded students that “the opportunity to explore different specialties doesn’t end at the end of school. Sit back, reflect, and learn what would make you happy,” she advised. “Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.”
Students in the breakout groups also talked about their reasons for choosing nursing over other prospective careers and courses of study, and the notion that other students might perceive the major as less lucrative or less prestigious than others. “People have preconceptions about what nursing is and what we do,” Golden said. “We understand what we do and why. It takes a special kind of person to do this job and be in this major. We’re all in it for other reasons.”
Jamie Krzmarzick ’09, M.S. ’15, who spoke on the alumni panel on Sunday afternoon, said she had found her home at Boston College in the retreat experience and the community around it, and encouraged current students to carry a spirit of reflection and discernment into their post-college lives. “When you’re out in the real world, you don’t find experiences like this weekend, where you take time out to think and reflect, as easily,” she said. “You have to make time for that.”
To end the weekend in a spirit of reflection, the students participated in a concluding activity called “Fishbowl.” They wrote highlights, new plans, and things they were thankful for from the conference on pieces of paper. They could then, if they so chose, come to the front of the room and share their thoughts. One by one, more than 20 students got to their feet and made their way up to the stage. They spoke about renewed friendships and new ones, of a broadened sense of what clinical practice would be like and what professional and educational opportunities lay beyond the end of their undergraduate education, and of a sense of openness that they hoped would remain when they returned to campus.
In her closing remarks, Gennaro employed the image of a raft on a river as an analogy for the journey through life and career. “You build a great raft, but you can’t control the currents,” she told the students. “You’re going to end up wherever the spirit, or nature, or God wants to take you.” When she asked the room how many people thought the retreat should happen again, almost every hand in the room went up.
—John Shakespear, photographs by Rose Lincoln