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The nursing simulation lab at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus

The nursing simulation lab at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus

USF nursing students persevere despite pandemic, on pace to graduate in spring

Students in the Accelerated Second Degree nursing pathway at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus are on track to graduate in May despite exceptional circumstances: having begun their studies as COVID-19 forced colleges and universities nationwide to close their campuses.

“I think what’s kept us going is the constant communication between faculty and students and being creative in finding a way to succeed,” Assistant Professor Natasha Zurcher, who oversees the cohort, said.

The students began instruction two months before Florida universities shut down their campuses and shifted to online learning to keep students, faculty and staff safe.

Launched by USF Health College of Nursing in January 2020, the Accelerated Second Degree pathway was introduced to address the shortage of professionally certified, degreed nurses regionally and statewide. The pathway enables students with bachelor’s degrees to return to school to earn a nursing degree through an intensive four-semester, 16-month instructional period. 

Despite the many challenges caused by the pandemic, not one of the cohort’s students has left the program. In addition, another 40 students have been accepted to a new cohort that began this spring.

“The Accelerated Second Degree pathway opportunity at the Sarasota-Manatee campus is instrumental to growing a nursing workforce and in bridging the nursing shortage across the country,” College of Nursing Dean Usha Menon said. “We know navigating this pandemic has not been easy. However, this cohort’s resilience is a testament to their commitment and compassion, which will serve them well after graduation.”

USF shifted to online learning the week after spring break and two months after the College of Nursing cut the ribbon on a high-tech simulation lab at the Sarasota-Manatee campus. However, because of COVID-19 restrictions, students and faculty were barred from accessing the lab for several months while also having to adjust to new learning protocols.

When students finally did enter the lab, they did so amid a host of health and safety requirements: donning masks, practicing social distancing and undergoing daily temperature and COVID-19 symptom checks – routines that continued when their instruction shifted to the clinical setting in local hospitals.

“You just kind of have to think differently,” said Zurcher, who directs the Accelerated Degree pathway for the College of Nursing. “So rather than have an entire group at once, we had to look at, ‘How can we break this down into small groups to allow that experience?’”

Faculty pitched in with regular “well-being check-ins” through email and social media to see how students were coping, and students did the same, reaching out to classmates and holding group chats to encourage one another. 

“We’re always talking to each other and reminding each other about due dates and lifting each other up,” student Joannie Sears said. “I’m not sure where I’d be without it, without the help of my cohort.”

Fellow nursing student Anthony Masters agreed, saying the pandemic helped to unite students and faculty.

“This campus and program has helped me and all the students exponentially,” he said. “It’s provided support for when I needed it, and it’s also given us a pathway to succeed, even through all this tribulation.”

He added that through regular group chats, the students, “encourage each other to strive to be the best that we can, to study as much as we can, to do the assignments the best we can and to always be there for ‘clinicals,’ never miss a clinical day, and to try to be the best student nurses we can.”

The campus’ Student Services Office and Counseling & Wellness Center offered additional support to motivate students.

Now, as they begin their final semester, the students say that these and other efforts made the difference in helping them stay on track to graduate in May.

“I can't think of anyone that I’ve come across that hasn’t been invested in my mental health, invested in my academic progress, both faculty and students,” student Heather Darling said. “There’s just a level of flexibility and understanding that comes with the fact that we’re here and adjusting to the pandemic, so I definitely feel a bit of gratitude from the fact that I have been in such a supportive environment.”

In the end, it was the passion the students felt for nursing that most encouraged them to succeed.

“There definitely are some tough days, but then you get that pep talk from your favorite professor or from a classmate and you want to continue,” Sears said. “At the end of the day, there’s just this really strong drive and passion, knowing this is what I want to do and what I’m going to do, that keeps us going.”

For more about the University of South Florida’s College of Nursing’s Accelerated Second Degree pathway visit seconddegree.health.usf.edu, or check out the video posted below.

To learn more about the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, visit www.sarasotamanatee.usf.edu.

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