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'Student nurses already have the potential to be leaders'

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Last week, I was delighted to attend the inaugural National Student Nurse Congress organised by Nikki Yun, an intensive care staff nurse from St George’s University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

The congress event allowed student nurses from across the UK to come together to debate, discuss and take part in workshops around current issues affecting nursing education and the profession as a whole.

“As student nurses we are taught to speak up and address our concerns”

The first debate I attended was “This House Believes that Leadership in Nursing is Ineffective”, with speakers Dr Peter Carter and Professor Alison Leary. The debate facilitated a lot of interesting discussions, and eventually, the motion was defeated with 12 for and 14 against.

My take-home messages from the debate are: do we adequately prepare student nurses to take on leadership roles and how exactly do we define leadership? Tackling the first point, as student nurses we are taught to speak up and address our concerns.

And there was a feeling in the room that students are ideally suited as vehicles of information to share best practice from each practice setting. However, the discussion revealed that clinical settings were often resistant to feedback and saw students as the problem and as being difficult.

Do we see people as moaners because we don’t want to listen? Does this teaching dissipate as we are socialised and institutionalised as registered nurses not to raise concerns? Dr Carter referenced the Mid Staffs scandal as an example where “everyone knew what was happening, though no one felt they had the responsibility”, and asked how we can best support student nurses to become future nursing leaders who have the necessary skill set to lead effectively.

Regarding the second point of the definition of leadership, there was much debate about the difference between leadership and management and the value we place on effective followership.

Professor Alison Leary referenced former US President John Quincy Adams’ famous quote: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader”. This quote resonated with me deeply, as I genuinely believe we can all lead in this way, whatever level of nursing we are at.

“I have strong opinions about the political influence and power we can have as nurses”

The second debate I attended was “This House Believes that Nurses Should Focus on Care and not get Involved with the Politics Associated with Healthcare”, with speakers Dr Oliver Shanley, regional chief nurse for London, Jude Diggins, London regional director of the Royal College of Nursing, and student nurses Jack Sherry and Harriet Bailey.

Now, I passionately follow politics and have an interest in taking a secondment with the Scottish government at some point in my career, so I have strong opinions about the political influence and power we can have as nurses. I found it really interesting to hear people’s views on this topic.

Much was made of the semantics of the debate proposal, mainly “involved in the politics”. I believe that as student nurses and nurses we should get “involved”. We should be informing and lobbying the politicians who shape our healthcare policy, legislation, budgets and workforce planning because we have the experience and intelligence from the shop floor.

There was some argument that the public continually polls nurses to be the top most trusted profession and that by getting involved in politics, where politicians are amongst the least trusted, we risk damaging the profession’s reputation.

While I understand this sentiment, I would argue that the trust the public has in us and our ability to act as advocates makes us ideally suited for this. In fact, I would go further as to suggest these qualities actually make us perfect candidates to become politicians – in Scotland our cabinet secretary for health and sport, Jeane Freeman, is a former nurse.

Now, I understand that not every student nurse or nurse has an active interest in politics, and I would never suggest we force our party political or political opinions on patients, that would be unethical. However, politics informs everything that happens in our lives and affects what happens to those in our care.

So, I genuinely believe we must have a political awareness if nothing else. This seemed to be the general consensus in the room, where the motion had one vote for, 19 against and one abstention.

Lastly, I attended a workshop on “Transitioning from Student Nurse to Qualified Nurse”, which comprised of a question and answer session with a panel of newly qualified nurses. This workshop provided a valuable insight into the panel’s experience over their initial few months in post.

Despite frankly acknowledging the challenges they have faced, such as short staffing, a demanding workload, and feelings of isolation and demoralisation, they all remained positive overall about their decision to become nurses and the opportunities the profession offers.

They have reminded me that, despite how out of depth I may feel when I first qualify, that I am never alone – that it is always okay to always ask for help. No one will feel less of me or you.

“We can use our voice, either our single or collective voices, to affect real positive change”

The event closed with the National Student Nurse Congress Award ceremony, identifying nine future nursing leaders from across the UK. It was an honour to be one of the student nurses shortlisted for the award, and I am incredibly grateful to the teaching staff at Glasgow Caledonian University for their nomination. However, what I have taken away from the day is that we as student nurses already have the potential to be leaders – we can lead in the nursing profession and do.

We can use our voice, either our single or collective voices, to affect real positive change for the communities we serve and for the future of the profession. I left the congress feeling inspired and invigorated, as I always do when I spend time with fellow, passionate and committed student nurses.

It reminded me that every little thing we do as student nurses has the potential to change someone’s life. That is certainly what I will take with me into my final management placement this summer and my future career.

Massive congratulations to Katie Dutton, the Congress Award winner – your story and the work you have done to raise sepsis awareness is genuinely inspiring and exceptional.

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