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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12 Responses to The Nursing School Experience

  1. I’ve run into situations similar to this one as well. My first career was freelance medical editing, and I’ve had teachers who can’t even spell “nursing” insert errors into my papers and deduct points for things that weren’t wrong. The teacher who is supposed to teach us how to write professional nursing papers provides class notes that could be easily confused with the scrawlings of an illiterate Armenian peasant (“anitdepressants,” anyone? how about instruction in “psychitric nursing”?). The educational experience would be vastly enriched if faculty would recognize and cultivate the diversity of experience embodied in most nursing student bodies these days; probably half my class is in school for their second career. It’s actually perplexing. I’m not an expert in most things, and I have no problem admitting it and accepting the input of those who ARE experts. Most nursing educators appear to feel that they must be experts in everything, and that’s just not possible. Is it defensiveness? I leave that to the psych nurse!

  2. Felicity says:

    I hope you become a nursing professor, and then a nursing dean, and scour the bad ‘uns from the Earth. That’s what I hope.

    Also…I could not bear to take a class like the math class you’ve described. Part of learning is finding what works for *you*, and to insist that the students use a canned system rather than learning…well, it makes you seem like a factory rather than a university. Nuts to them!

  3. Paula says:

    Well, some things must never change. Although my experience with nursing school was 25 years ago, I still remember very clearly the demeaning way in which the students were treated. I have always likened it more to a boot camp environment rather than attending an institution of higher learning. I recall clinical postconferences where the instructor would not stop the ridicule until she had a student in tears.

    Did this make me a better nurse? No. I am very glad I was able to rise above the attitude displayed by my instructors to show compassion to patients, families and co-workers.

    Now as a manager, I have several employees in nursing school, going to several different schools. The stories they share certainly demonstrate that this continues to be a widespread issue. During the years, doing informal polls of nursing school experiences has revealed that students in very expensive private schools are treated much better than those who attend state schools. At least this is what I have found in my area.

    In a profression with current shortages and more severe shortages predicted in the future, one would think that the “break the spirit” mentality would cease. I had a great deal of difficulty with this type of treatment as a young adult. I do not believe that I could have/would have tolerated it if I had been older and wiser. The nursing profession is dependent on nontraditional students to prevent the shortage from reaching critical levels. I am glad you survived.

    Welcome to a very challenging but fulfilling profession.

  4. Lindsay says:

    Your story has me rattled, I must say. I’m 23 and ever since I met my husband and his family I’ve wanted to be a nurse. That was 5 years ago. I’m applying this week to three nursing schools and I’m scared outta my mind. They are all an hour away and I know this is the type of thing I’m going to run into all the time. I’m not used to it, but after wanting this for so long, I’m sure I can handle it…after all, you and everyone else seems to be very satisfied where you are in life now, let’s hope : ) for my sake!

  5. Margaret says:

    I can’t believe this, it is deja vu, final semester and I have to repeat because I failed a math test, unbelievable, all my math was correct, but I missed a label in my work, although it was on the answer line, I shaded a syringe over the line oh and some other nonsense, I am sitting here in disbelief got through this whole demeaning experience with no problem passed all other stupid math tests, clinicals, care plans, etc now I have to sit out a whole semester, I don’t think I am going back

  6. Tania says:

    yeah well the boot camp nature of nursing schools still exist and I go to a private school. I honestly think there is no difference between state or private schools. So far I’ve gotten through nursing school but with many tears and sleepless nights. I ask myself a hundred times a day why I am doing this. There is almost no guidance in anything and a great feeling a lonliness. I don’t know why they train nurses like this being that this is suppose to be a caring profession. I hope someone changes the system one day.

  7. hailey says:

    Oh my goodness, I have been searching for a site like this one that really tells you how RN school is going to be. Not one of the university websites that glamorize it. I wanted to hear the dirt, and I found it. I am considering a career change to nursing, but this scares me a little, needless to say…

    Would you say that going through the grueling school part of nursing was worth it? I mean, do the nurses who are working now still hold those same values outside of school (nurses eat their young)? I would really hate to be in a catty-like environment like that forever. I can handle it for a few years during school, but lets move on! Thanks!

  8. Geek2Nurse says:

    If nursing is your calling, Hailey, then it’s worth whatever you have to do to get there, right? 🙂 And for the most part it’s confined only to nursing school. The “eat your young” mentality seems to be unique to nurses in academia, thank goodness!

  9. Nursing student says:

    Well well nothing has changed in the year 2010, I love the story, it is so true, this is my second career also, with many life experiences. We have to pass our math test’s with 90 percent, which has not been a problem for me, but this last test, I know I have labelled a few of the answers incorrect, so yes they are wrong, however I think I scored below the 90 percent, and this would be the first time, I had a bad a bit of anxiety for no reason, so I may be looking at a fail, because where I go if you do not pass with a ninety percent you are out. Can you believe this, and as for the instructors, and all the nurses I have encountered as a student most have been extremely rude and unprofessional!!!

  10. Deborah Pedretti says:

    I work for the School of Nursing and we have had very similar/upsetting feedback. It is my sincere hope to receive suggestions, from any of you, as to how we might be able to begin to change this situation for the better. All suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  11. J says:

    I found this trying to figure some alternative path. I’ve quit my job, sold my house, spent 2 years of my life on this and I can’t get it together. I do very well in the academics and I enjoy the concepts but being chucked into the hospital and expected to do work I have not been trained to do is unreasonable, unsafe, and I’m failing at it.

    We’ve lost 10 of 30 students thus far and I know of 1 who is failing academics, 1 who is also failing clinical, and 2 other people who are actively looking for work.

    The awesome part is thinking about how I will explain to my family full of PhD’s and executives how and why I gave up my career in fire/aviation, sold my house, and blew my savings to go fail at community college.

  12. Melanie says:

    Wow! 3 years after the last comment on this article, and nothing has changed. It’s amazing how in a profession built on principles of caring and compassion, there is little to none given when it comes to the students who are the future of that profession. I could have written any one of these experiences myself. And that’s just sad! I agree with some of the above posters, it is much more like a bootcamp experience than a college one. As an adult student, and a mother, it is difficult to be disrespected in such a blatant and unapologetic way. The true problem lies in the kind of nurse this type of educational environment creates. A bitter, resentful, nurse who passes on to each generation of nurses thereafter an attitude of intolerance, and lack of compassion. Is this really what we want the future of Nursing to be?

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