As a first-year mental health nursing student I started my course in September 2011, along with around 20 other enthusiastic would-be nurses, of all ages and backgrounds.
With the pride and excitement of achieving a place on a nursing degree course still freshly buzzing around my head, I believe I made the mistake of focusing on how many sharpened pencils were in my brand-spanking new pencil case instead of getting stuck straight in, despite several pre-warnings from newly-qualified friends. Perhaps three or four weeks prior to assignments being due for submission, I found myself desperately trying to search for books in the university library that were already on loan and trying to avoid having to learn to search for journals.
With regards to my first clinical placement, I may as well have skipped onto the ward with a sign stating the words ‘Florence Nightingale II’ stuck to my forehead with a drawing pin. Needless to say, I left the dementia assessment unit after my first shift with tears being determinedly held back, and tail firmly tucked between ones legs. My first experience of dementia certainly opened my eyes.
I have never been frightened of working. Although unfamiliar, the shift pattern was something I grew accustomed to rather quickly. However, it was my sheer ignorance of how many learning opportunities that would suddenly be placed in front of me that really took me aback - first-year ignorance at its exemplory best. I also found that almost every single nursing student has an “I will never cut it as a nurse” moment; in my case, there were more than one. Being a nursing student genuinely is a case of learning something new every single day; luckily, I was blessed with the opportunity to work with a fantastic, supportive group of staff on my first placement.
After my first term, I can safely say that hindsight is a marvellous thing. However, I can also say that I believe I have learned more since the 12 September 2011 than I could have ever imagined. It is only after experiencing first-hand what it is like to have the title of ‘student nurse’ that one can truly begin to understand and appreciate the advice, warnings, and numerous offerings of help and support that are presented - as well as what the reality of working a shift alongside qualified staff is like.
It was with these points in mind that I began to reflect upon my experiences, both in the classroom at university and on placement, and started to consider some New Year’s resolutions; the first one, I concluded, was that I will make it as a student nurse.
Appreciating time is something that I am definitely more aware of as I enter 2012, which includes using every moment timetabled to work towards achieving my degree, grasping all opportunities available whilst on clinical placement to accomplish my proficiencies, and last but certainly not least- time off. I have not appreciated time to myself or time to spend with friends and family as much as I have since embarking upon my course. As students, our time off from our course should be made the most of at all times. As we are kindly guaranteed several strategically placed holiday weeks throughout our three-year programme, it is easy to take for granted. Although, after my first placement I have never been more acutely aware that nursing does not stop simply because it is a bank holiday - or a Saturday morning. I actually wondered what the ward I had worked on during my first placement would be like on Christmas Day as I tucked in to my turkey and stuffing and hoped that at least some of patients I had had the privilege of treating had perhaps been discharged and were now somewhat settled, having their own Christmas dinners.
Having a clear and open mind is also something that I feel I should remind myself of in the coming year - something which has been highlighted at several pointsdring the first term. Beginning university, I assumed, would naturally involve me in a fabulous, non-stop social life with my peers whom I reside with at our university residence. Wrong. One particular occasion that comes to mind was the time I awoke to hear my flatmate arriving home at 4.55a.m - five minutes before my ‘early shift alarm’ was due to go off. I have been surprised at the range of ages and backgrounds of my fellow guidance tutor group students as well: fresh from college, secondments, following a dream, leaving one job to embark on a nursing course, single parents. I am lucky to work with such a fantastic, mixed bunch of peers.
Again, my first placement really opened my eyes, dashing all pre-conceptions I may have developed beforehand and proving to me that one should always approach situations without pre-existing expectation; after all, if someone has never experienced something, how on earth can they know what to expect? Being assigned ‘elderly care’ for my first placement, I almost immediately found that peoples’ perceptions of just what ‘elderly care’ in psychiatry involved were not always complimentary and somewhat far from the truth. I, however, could not have found the learning experience more enriching, thought-provoking and beneficial. I have since been assigned my second placement- a low security forensic ward. Being, I feel, totally different from elderly dementia care, I am unsure about what exactly to expect, but from experience this now just makes me more eager to begin my second placement.
So, after reflecting upon my first set of lectures, the first time I had to write academically, the first time I walked onto a ward wearing my uniform, the first time that somebody asked me why I had chosen the mental health branch of nursing, and the first time that I felt I genuinely had to question my suitability for the course, I think it is safe to say that I have been given plenty of food for thought since beginning my journey as student nurse.
This is why I intend to enter 2012 with heightened awareness; an awareness and appreciation of my time on the course, an awareness of pre-existing assumptions and the need to be more open-minded, and a greater awareness of what it means to be a nurse.
Of course, I will inevitably still rush around finding a reference for an essay at times; still get a sometimes much-needed shock to the system; and I will most certainly shed a tear or two and almost envy my flatmate’s ‘social butterfly’ university lifestyle. However, I will also brush these things aside, because I am a nursing student.
Emma Spowart is a first-year mental health nursing student.