Perla Arroyo-Jaime is no stranger to humanitarian work. As a longtime Navy reservist, she’s traveled the world over to build infrastructure projects that support other military branches and vulnerable populations in places like Afghanistan and Africa. Now, she’s jumpstarting a new career, one that will take her to the frontlines in the battle against a global health crisis.
In May, Arroyo-Jaime graduated from New Mexico State University’s School of Nursing as part of a cohort of 60 students who earned bachelor’s degrees in nursing, fulfilling a longtime desire to become a nurse. She recently started her first nursing job in the intensive-care unit of a San Diego hospital, feeling more eager than worried about entering the nursing profession amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I feel very prepared,” she said. “The School of Nursing has given me every single scenario and tool that I would need as a nurse and the ability to apply them without hesitation. With this pandemic,” she added, “I feel it’s time for me to prove what I’ve learned.”
That spirit of optimistic preparedness is a hallmark that defines not only Arroyo-Jaime but the entire spring 2020 cohort from the College of Health and Social Services’ Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. Faced with unprecedented challenges caused by the pandemic, the students in this close-knit class rallied together for a strong finish to their final semester.
Their resiliency was such that all 60 students completed their coursework and clinical hours to graduate on time, said Alexa Doig, director of the NMSU School of Nursing. Their commitment to their education, she added, showed a remarkable level of dedication to the nursing profession.
“These extraordinary times require extraordinary nurses,” Doig said, noting the critical role of nurses on the frontlines of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. “Each student in this cohort has demonstrated intelligence, compassion, ambition and innovation. We are counting on them to use their education, training, leadership skills and life experience to leverage change that will protect health care workers and deliver equitable access to nursing care to everyone in our nation.”
Like most college seniors, Sage Stewart, another student in the cohort, was looking forward to her final semester of school when life as she knew it changed about two months before graduation. In March, many universities nationwide, including NMSU, took steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 by ceasing in-person classes and transitioning to online learning.
The measure, although effective in helping to slow the infection rate, meant Stewart could no longer have face-to-face interactions with her classmates in the final stretch of their journeys to become nurses.
“When we were in school, we spent nearly every minute of the day together, going to classes and clinicals. We all became super-close, like a family,” she said, “and it was heartbreaking when our in-person classes ended, and we couldn’t see each other. That was really difficult.”
Arroyo-Jaime was just as distraught, she said, when she learned that her final weeks in the nursing program would be spent not on campus but at her home, completing coursework online. The move to web-based learning was an unexpected shift for many students in the cohort, she added.
“We thought we were going to see each other again,” said Arroyo-Jaime, who attended her final on-campus class the week before spring break. “But that didn’t happen – and that took away from my school experience.”
But Arroyo-Jaime, Stewart and their classmates quickly adapted to online classes, with help from their instructors, who managed to move their courses online in less than two weeks.
Stewart lauded efforts by faculty members to keep instruction moving seamlessly when classes resumed after spring break. “Our professors were truly amazing,” she said. “They really care about their work and their students, and that really showed during this difficult time.”
Doig, echoing Stewart’s praise, said her faculty members played instrumental roles in helping their students meet graduation requirements in time for spring commencement.
“Getting this entire class to the finish line on time,” she said, “was a testament to their dedication to each of our students and the nursing profession.”
The end of the semester was a bittersweet moment for Arroyo-Jaime. Public health orders prohibiting large gatherings meant she and other graduates couldn’t participate in traditional commencement exercises, something that dampened her spirits.
“I really wished we could have celebrated our accomplishments together,” she said. “We overcame a rough patch, and I would say we’re the best cohort yet.”
To celebrate the students’ success, the NMSU School of Nursing organized a virtual pinning ceremony – a first in the school’s history. More than 300 friends and family members watched the ceremony, during which each student received recognition and words of encouragement.
Doig said she’s eager to see these graduates enter the nursing workforce.
Stewart, who’s already received at least one job offer, said she would like to work in an ICU, an area she gravitated toward during her clinical rotations, and plans to start her career in El Paso. Although she has mixed feelings about becoming a nurse in the middle of a pandemic, she feels adequately prepared to work on the frontlines.
“I’m very excited to use my knowledge to help others,” she said, “but there’s also an element of fear, especially given the shortages of personal protective equipment.”
Arroyo-Jaime, meanwhile, pushed aside concerns, saying, “I feel perfectly fine starting my career at this time. Without hesitation, I’m ready.”