First-Prize Winner, Christal Leitch

Christal Leitch found out firsthand that the biggest surprises often come when your mind is focused elsewhere. “I was so surprised,” she says, laughing, noting that she almost didn’t open the e-mail notifying her of her win right away.

Leitch, who begins her nursing school studies at the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing at Mercer University this fall, came to nursing in a roundabout way. “My mom is a nurse,” she says, “but that was never one of my things. I wanted to work in an office 9 to 5.”

In 2006, Leitch realized she wanted to change careers. Her ill mother-in-law came to stay, and Leitch nursed her and cared for her. “It was so rewarding,” says Leitch. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Leitch immigrated to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago Islands in the 1980s and says her primary goal was to earn a college degree and return back home. But being unfamiliar with the accreditation process in the United States led her to get a degree in office technology in 1996 from a school that had state, but not national, accreditation.

By the time nursing came on her radar, Leitch had already started a family and worked for a variety of Fortune 500 companies. But, she says, something was missing from her career, and she now realizes it was a mismatch between her interests and her job. “I am naturally a very caring person, and I didn’t realize that that’s where I’m most comfortable.”

In 2009, when she decided to return to school for a nursing degree, she had to begin taking her prerequisite classes all over again. But on the same day she started classes, she also started a job as a medical assistant for a group of vascular surgeons, and she knew she was on the right path.

In earning her prerequisite classes for nursing, Leitch qualified for a bachelor’s in psychology, which she earned last May. Nursing school will be challenging, but Leitch is excited. She’s confident that her journey will be smoothed by her strong support system of family and friends.

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“My focus will be on trying to keep patients comfortable and giving patients someone to lean on and to hold their hands,” says Leitch. “I want them to know ‘I’m here and you don’t have to be alone.’”

Leitch says in those particularly stressful times, a nurse is essential. “In times of distress, I want them to know someone is there to comfort them,” she says.

Leitch envisions a career as a certified nurse-midwife or a certified registered nurse anesthetist, although she realizes that could change. Noting that each stage of nursing school could reveal something that is a calling, she is especially looking forward to the labor and delivery training.

Eventually, she would like to work for an organization like Doctors Without Borders. “It’s one of the first things I’ll do when I get my degree,” she says. “I am so ready to sign up.”

Despite coming to nursing a little later than most, Leitch is comfortable knowing she is finally where she belongs. “When my aunt heard I was going to nursing school, she said, ‘It’s about time,’” Leitch says laughing. “I just never thought about it, and then it just dawned on me.”

Although her journey to nursing is long, Leitch says she lives and models what she tells her sons—failure is not an option. “Your hard work will pay off in the end,” she says. “Nothing comes easy, but at the end of the day, no one can take your education away from you.”

 

Runner-up, Karachi Egbuta

From a young age, Karachi Egbuta knew she wanted to be involved in health care. A bachelor’s degree in biology led her to different health care jobs after graduation, but it was seeing the interactions between nurses and patients at various jobs and volunteer positions that convinced her nursing was the career choice for her.

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“Nurses interacted with patients from start to end,” says Egbuta, a student at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, New York. “I saw how caring nurses are, how they comforted patients, and how they would advocate for their patients.” And seeing patients put so much faith and trust in the nurses—confiding in them in ways they might not with their physicians—impressed Egbuta.

“I just watched that, and I knew I wanted to do nursing,” she says. Her husband, an OB/GYN resident, opened her eyes to actually making a career out of nursing and encouraged her to follow that path.

Egbuta’s varied health care experience, through work, volunteerism, or her own travels, have all given her a global understanding of health care’s pressing and vast issues. She spent two years as a public health advocate with the Jacobi Medical Center researching and testing patients for HIV, and she continues to volunteer in an ER department where she sees all kinds of health care needs and situations. Her work impressed upon her the importance of patients’ health care education and information. Her own travels to visit family in Nigeria gave her insight into the discrepancies of global health care and fueled her passion to help others. “They talked about the hunger and the struggles, and it makes you realize everything you have here,” she says. “It’s all those little things they need that we have access to here.”

Egbuta, who expects to earn her nursing degree in May 2015, knew going back to school wasn’t going to be easy for her. She says she struggled getting her first degree, so she knew another degree would require all her focus, but she was pulled by nursing’s appeal.

“The beauty of nursing is that you can do anything,” says Egbuta. “I love that because I like a little bit of everything.” And with an infant daughter, she says nursing’s flexibility will help her manage work and family.

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Egbuta already knows the challenges of trying to manage family and work. Her daughter was born during the toughest semester of nursing school yet. With the help of family, support from faculty, and a razor-sharp focus to finish nursing school, Egbuta had her baby on a Thursday and was back in class on Monday.

As a student, Egbuta sees that nursing is a challenging profession despite its rewards. “There’s lots that will test you in nursing,” she says. “The hardest is dealing with different patients’ moods. You want to do everything you can to make them happy.”

Egbuta finds compassion for their situation helps: “You have to put yourself in their shoes. No one wants to be in the hospital. They are just uncomfortable. So you have to be comforting to them even when they are in a bad mood.”

Egbuta plans to start in a medical-surgical unit upon graduation so she can get broad experience. “You learn about everything that has to do with medical conditions,” she says. And with dermatology and skin conditions being one of Egbuta’s top interests, she is likely to see patients with a range of skin issues. “Skin is the first barrier,” Egbuta explains.

Eventually, Egbuta can see furthering her education to become a family nurse practitioner, but until then she wants to just be the best nurse she can be.

“A lot of people know nursing is the hardest undergrad and a lot of people don’t make it,” Egbuta says. “I always say, ‘If I can do it, anyone can do it.’ You have to put in the time. It’s very intense, but they are trying to prepare you to be the best nurse you can be.”

 

Runner-up, Yvonne Shih

Yvonne Shih took a huge leap of faith when she moved from California to Boston to attend the Boston College (BC) William F. Connell School of Nursing. Tough as it was to leave family and friends behind in the area where she spent her whole life, Shih knew the move was going to bring her closer to her goal of becoming a nurse. “It’s not about seeing problems or obstacles but to just look ahead,” she explains.

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Pursing a nursing career wasn’t something Shih even considered until her freshman year of high school. When a family member had health issues, a visiting nurse made a lasting impression when she simply said to Shih, “Maybe you should think about nursing.”

“I didn’t know it was even an option until she said it,” says Shih, who expects to graduate in May 2015. But, she says, her own personality traits of enjoying taking care of people and making others comfortable might have tipped her off.

“I definitely like the idea of being able to help people for the rest of my life,” Shih says. Making patients feel comfortable in an unfamiliar setting or situation that isn’t always easy appeals to her. And the variability of a nursing career, one where you can care for patients at their bedside in a hospital setting or out in the community, is something that she finds compelling. Events like school shootings or the Boston Marathon bombings, which happened so close to BC, have helped shape Shih’s future course. She is interested especially in psychiatric nursing. “With the school shootings, you can see how important being a psych nurse is and how it can benefit the community,” she says.

Despite the enormous time challenges of any nursing student, Shih fits in even more nursing-related activities outside the classroom. She is the president of the Massachusetts Student Nurses Association; she is a group leader at the Cornerstone Church of Boston; and she represents BC in several networking and leadership events. Of everything, Shih finds her own internal expectations to be the most daunting: “It’s just tough being hard on yourself, and making sure you are on top of everything and presenting yourself well. It’s hard to maintain a balance of everything.”

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Shih finds incredible support in her family, friends, school, and her faith. And, she says, even pressure beyond just the typical school worries show her just a taste of what life after college might hold. But she has had incredible mentoring experiences working with BC faculty on an advanced study grant for her research on nurse staffing ratios in California and Massachusetts and a fellowship for an NIH-funded study on sleep apnea.

Although she says people might first notice her skin color or her features, being a minority isn’t a disadvantage as a nurse, even if some people might still believe that, she says. She would like to empower other minority nursing students to see their strengths. At BC, she has even led a faculty and student discussion on racism at the BC Connell School of Nursing Diversity Advisory Board Stand Against Racism event.

Shih believes in meeting others and being brave or bold enough to just ask people for help. When she first arrived at BC and wanted to find out how to combine studying nursing with the economics and business of health care, she simply asked a dean about it. The dean, in turn, put her in touch with several faculty who had the expertise she needed.

With one more year to go, Shih is thankful to her family and her school for the support they have given her. She follows the advice she would give to any nursing student who is trying to make a mark and to find others to guide them along their journey.

“You might not instantly click with everyone,” she says. “But don’t feel discouraged. And don’t ever give up.”

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