The Nursing School Experience

Bravo to Phil Baumann, RN, for his blog post, An Open Letter to Some Nursing Education Faculty. To his list, I would also like to add “Appreciate your students’ previous knowledge and life experience.”

As someone who attended nursing school after a successful career in the tech industry, it was disconcerting to be expected to forfeit my adulthood and life experiences and submit to being treated as though I were a naive and inexperienced 18-year-old just out of high school. I had lived in a foreign country and six different US states, owned homes and businesses, raised three children to adulthood, was a degreed engineer with two decades of experience, had been a manager and department head and earned a six-figure salary, and was practically the same age as many of my instructors. The condescending attitudes I encountered as a nursing student, therefore, were appalling. Even if I *had* been an inexperienced 18-year-old, I would have deserved more respect than some of them showed.

It’s no wonder that nursing instructors often complain of the lack of respect they receive from their students. Respect is a two-way street; you have to give it in order to get it. As both a parent and a manager, I could have told them that; tried to tell them that, in fact, but because I was a college student, I had nothing of value to offer them, so they couldn’t hear me.

There were exceptions among our faculty, of course, as I’m sure there are at all nursing schools. A few did appreciate the diversity of experience and knowledge brought to their classrooms by the increasing numbers of “nontraditional” second-career students. They were usually the same ones who showed common courtesy and respect to all of their students, regardless of age or background. Unfortunately, they were in the minority. As I’ve moved on since graduation, encountering other nurses trained at other institutions, I’ve come to realize that my experience was far from unique. Megan D., a current nursing student, tells a story eerily similar to one of my own experiences in her blog post, Lateral Violence in Nursing School.

In a profession whose most important qualities are empathy, caring, and appreciation for cultural diversity, the treatment of students is sadly lacking in any of these things. “Nursing school eats its young” is a common remark, as is, “it’s too bad it has to be that way, but that’s how it’s always been.” Well, here’s another thing I learned as an engineer: the fact that “this is how it’s always been done” does not qualify a process as “the best way to do it.”

Here’s only one of many examples from my own experience: I failed a math test for the first time in my life, in my third year of nursing school. I used to write complex equations full of imaginary numbers and integrals and LaPlace and Fourier transforms that completely described the functional capabilities of electromechanical systems. Yet in nursing school, I failed a test whose most challenging calculations were unit conversions and simple division of real integers.

I didn’t get any of the answers wrong.That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I derived my answers engineering-style, using the unit cancellations to check my work as I went, rather than plugging numbers into a memorized equation. My instructor (who was fully aware of my engineering background) explained to me that although I had arrived at all of the correct answers, the fact that I had not used the “need over have” nursing equation told her that I did not fully understand the relationships between the numbers. “You’re a nurse now,” she admonished me soberly, “and that means you really have to know what you’re doing, because when nurses make mistakes — they can kill people!”

After more than 2 years of having my engineering, management, and intercultural experience repeatedly dismissed as completely irrelevant to nursing, you might have thought I’d have gotten used to it. I hadn’t. I was stunned speechless.

If I had been able to speak I could have pointed out to her that nurses, no matter how badly they screw up, can only ever kill one person at a time. Engineers, on the other hand, can kill them by the dozens, or hundreds, with a single miscalculation. Shoot, in the right circumstances, they might possibly even kill them by the thousands. This would tell any logical person that engineers are probably trained pretty stringently in how to avoid making stupid mistakes. But logic is one of those things I had been repeatedly told was irrelevant in my new career choice. “Oh, Ruth,” they would sigh, “you’re a nurse now. You’ve got to stop thinking like an engineer.”

As it was, when I reported to the instructor doing the mandatory remedial math tutoring sessions for those who failed the test, and encountered the open-mouthed stare of disbelief from one of the rare faculty members who actually understood and appreciated the meaning of a degree in electrical engineering from one of the nation’s top engineering schools, I got to have a nice therapeutic venting session, and I ended up not having to repeat the exam.

I didn’t get to keep the test, though. I really wanted to frame it and hang it on my wall. I’ll just have to be satisfied with telling the story, I suppose.

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