My daughter has reached that stage in life when she asks really good questions.
Questions like “how do we measure good?”, “how do you know you are actually helping?” and “why can’t I have a corn snake?”
Her mother – a balanced and sanguine woman who, after 25-plus years in the health service has little time, particularly on a weekend, for our rambling – tends to reply to any debate around good and bad by doing her Michael Jackson impression. “Who’s bad?” she sings, breaking into a moonwalk and trying to distract us from our meandering. “Mum we’re trying to be serious – please stop dancing”, says our daughter, sometimes adding “at least until we are out of the supermarket”.
I am proud of my daughter for wondering, with some emotional investment, about good and bad. Not as proud as I am of my wife for being able to moonwalk near the frozen foods but proud nonetheless. I believe, rightly or wrongly, that the most important and insidious thing that is happening to our social sense during this “economic downturn” is that more important elements of social relations – things to do with values, morality, expectation and hope – are being redesigned. When that happens institutions such as the NHS become easier targets.
A few years ago I remember talking to people working on a Department of Health nurse recruitment drive. Their aim was to “sell” nursing as a profession that people could choose because of the career opportunities, working conditions (yeah, I know) and life choices. The recruitment angle sought to reframe the perception of nursing. No longer was it a “calling” or a “vocation”. It was being reshaped, being modernised – given a makeover. Of course, the problem with that approach was that, in trying to lift the perceived status of nursing to make it equal to other jobs, it downplayed the potential uniqueness that set it apart.
Still it broadened the answers that one received in interviewing prospective students. The putting-them-at-their-ease question: “So why would you like to nurse?” drew answers that ranged from a mumbled: “Dunno really” to “I am very ambitious. I plan to be a dame within a decade”.
I have noticed a change in the way that question is answered more recently. When done thoughtfully the answers tend to involve less about what it would enable someone to do and more about what it enables someone to be. Less about “I want to travel”, “I want to progress”, “I want to specialise” and more about “I want to be helpful and have a life that feels meaningful” or “I want to make a difference”.
I suppose at a time when so many young people are finding it hard to get work, nursing offers something that looks secure and reassuring and so one might expect the decision to come into nursing to be a logical and well-considered career choice. But the sense I am getting from many of the students is that it is more than a refuge from unemployment – it is also a search for meaning, a desire to help, even a stance against the disinvestment in “people” that the sort of economic cycle we are in now tends to attract.
I have a genuine, deep respect for modern students. They arrive at a difficult time, yet bring energy, commitment, hope and a desire to learn. That isn’t easy. In fact, perhaps it is as hard to be a student now as it has ever been. I don’t think it does any harm to notice that now and again.
- Go to studentnursingtimes.net for a comprehensive package covering wellbeing, financial advice and study skills to support your student experience.
Mark Radcliffe is a senior lecturer and author of Gabriel’s Angel.