Ask nursing students how they spend their free time and you’ll likely be met with quizzical looks. Nursing students don’t actually have much free time and the little they get is often shoehorned into a few minutes between odd working or clinical hours, class times, study time, and the short blocks they spend sleeping and eating because they have to.
Despite the hectic schedule, there’s a lot to celebrate about being a nursing student, says Liana Lo Chau, president of the Nursing Students’ Association at the University of Texas at Austin. “Nursing in general requires a special type of person,” she says. “We are very Type A and have an ambitious mindset. We want to do well, not necessarily because we are competitive, but because we want to do what we do best.”
But the fits and starts of a nursing student’s school years and earliest work experiences are tough.
“I think the most challenging thing for nursing students is time management,” Lo Chau says. “Our schedules are very different from regular college students. We have weird hours.” Some classmates work night clinicals and others are up at 5 am to head to day clinicals. Then there are days devoted only to hospital work and other days in the simulation labs.
According to Lo Chau, an organized schedule and the discipline to follow it is a nursing student’s best friend. “We have to figure out a time to set aside for hanging out with friends,” she says. “I keep a really, really detailed planner.”
Lo Chau says she records activities and tasks nearly hour by hour. Some days, she will pencil in a few minutes for something fun in between the time scheduled to study for one class and the new block of time to study for another class. “It’s hard to plan because there’s so much stuff,” she says. “You just have to work with whatever you have.”
And being a working nursing student has it’s own challenges, too.
“One of the biggest challenges is a lack of experience and feeling incompetent at times and needing guidance,” Lo Chau says. As a new nurse or a soon-to-graduate nursing student, the fear of making a mistake weighs heavily, she says. “It’s just not feeling confident and trusting in your skills. As time goes on, you will gain more confidence and believe what you are doing is correct.”
Once you’ve graduated, there’s time to shift into a new role in your nursing path. After being monitored so closely for so long, new nurses often feel a little uneasy with the unfamiliar autonomy, she says.
The ideal, she says, is for nursing students to consider getting work-like experience during their school years. That might be the competitive externships or residency programs that many hospitals now offer to new nurses and nursing students, says Lo Chau.
Because there are certain situations in a clinical setting that you can’t prepare for unless you’ve had the direct experience, these opportunities give you those opportunities with a little more supervision so you can gain your confidence. These programs cater to student nurses and newer nurses and allows them a little bit of monitoring with some breathing room to come up to speed.
With the intense education that nursing school requires, Lp Chau says she wouldn’t have it any other way. “If you enjoy doing something, it’s not really like work,” she says. “We like caring for people, and it’s something we want to do.”