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Outside-the-classroom experiences help prepare nursing grad for future success

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Taylor Johnson always knew she wanted to be a nurse so she could make a positive difference in the lives of others. At UW-Eau Claire, Johnson, who will graduate this month with a degree in nursing, found plenty of real-world opportunities as a nursing student to help change lives. (Photo by Shane Opatz)

Taylor Johnson was helping to care for her ailing uncle when she saw the incredible impact that nurses have on their patients and their loved ones. She knew then that she wanted to be a nurse so she could make that kind of positive difference in the lives of others.

While the Tomahawk native will begin her career in health care after she graduates this month from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, she’s already found a surprising number of real-world opportunities as a nursing student to change lives for the better.

“Being a nurse means more than taking care of a person in a hospital,” Johnson says. “While that can be a huge part of it, nurses also create links between community members and all the people in the community.

“So, it is so important for nursing students to be involved in projects that open doorways to connect with the community and gain a greater understanding of how everyone is connected and the influence we can have.”

These outside-the-classroom learning experiences also help Blugolds discover niches within the nursing field that are especially interesting to them, helping them decide on a path to follow after they graduate, Johnson says.

Changing lives

While UW-Eau Claire nursing students always are immersed in real-world learning, the COVID-19 pandemic created even more opportunities for Blugolds — including Johnson — to make a difference in the lives of those around them.

As part of her “Partnerships in Health and Safety” clinical, Johnson visited rural farms in Pepin and Buffalo counties to provide care to immigrant workers and farm families.

“Participating in the rural farms clinical provided me with exposure to a vulnerable population that I learned so much from,” Johnson says. “Health disparities are something that we have talked about in all of my years of school, but I truly don’t think that the concept can be totally understood without being involved in it.”

Through the clinical, Johnson and her UW-Eau Claire nursing team provided COVID-19 vaccines to the workers and farm families. Given their 12-hour workdays and other factors, these are populations that might not otherwise have been able to access the vaccine, Johnson says.

The clinical also helped her see the world and the role nurses play in it a bit differently.

“The number of workers and families we saw was eye opening,” Johnson says. “It made me realize the impact we can have as nurses goes beyond the people we see in hospitals. I learned how big nursing can be and the variety of care we can give.

“One of the major highlights for me from 'Rural Farms' was listening to people’s stories about why they chose to leave their homes and start a new life here. I also think the experience of working so closely with my peers to provide an atmosphere that was welcoming to everyone was beyond beneficial.”

The rural farm clinic also gave Johnson the opportunity to collaborate with UW-Eau Claire students in academic disciplines outside of nursing.

In her role as a student nurse, she administered the COVID-19 vaccines to the workers, who then talked with history and Spanish majors about their experiences living in western Wisconsin during the pandemic. The stories were part of an interdisciplinary project, “Rural Voices/Voces del Campo,” that aims to capture and share stories from populations whose voices are not always heard during crises like the pandemic.

“Hearing stories about how so many of the workers faced unimaginable hardships was eye opening,” Johnson says. “It made me realize that as a nurse we will have the opportunity to care for everyone, regardless of their pasts and/or socioeconomic status. Creating this archive will tell us how we can better serve this population of people and provide them with the best health care opportunities that they might not otherwise have.”

Johnson also has presented her work from the clinical and the archive project, creating yet another learning experience. She presented during the Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity (CERCA) and the Provost's Honors Symposium, two high-profile campus events that allow students to share their research with a wider audience.

Both opportunities to present her work were meaningful, Johnson says.

“The Provost's Symposium was an amazing experience to present — despite being nervous — because we had a chance to show our school how different departments can work together to produce information that would be helpful to everyone.”

Meaningful research

Johnson also is part of the Wisconsin Retail Assessment Project (WRAP), a nursing research team led by Dr. Lorraine Smith, assistant professor of nursing.

For that project, Johnson and her student nursing research partners are surveying retailers within one mile of Eau Claire middle and high schools.

“We are collecting data on how many retailers there are, what they sell and how they advertise what they sell,” Johnson says. “Our goal is to provide our information to the Eau Claire City-County Health Department so it can focus on youth exposure to tobacco products.”

As a student field researcher, Johnson’s team has completed 40 surveys of retailers. The students now are compiling and organizing the data so they can present their work and findings to representatives from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

The project is interesting and is helping her see how nursing can impact communities in various ways, Johnson says. Being part of the project also helped her strengthen the kinds of “soft skills” that will be important in her work as a professional nurse.

“Working as a student researcher has pushed me to be more involved with the county and coalitions to see how they work and what they do,” Johnson says. “I have significantly improved my communication, leadership and teamwork skills. I have been leading group meetings, working closely with my peers on accomplishing our surveys, and communicating with our lead professors and the coalition group.

“I think the experiences I’ve had and the opportunities to participate in groups have pushed me to grow as a person and become more well-rounded.”

Path to UW-Eau Claire

Before coming to UW-Eau Claire, Johnson earned her associate degree in arts and science from what was then known as UW-Marathon County.

With her associate degree in hand, Johnson decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree as well. After researching her options, she realized that UW-Eau Claire would best position her to pursue a variety of interesting opportunities after graduation.

“I also loved the campus and faculty,” Johnson says of becoming a Blugold. “Everyone I talked to about transferring was extremely helpful and welcoming. Applying for the nursing program here in Eau Claire was one of the most nerve-wracking times of my life because I knew it is a competitive program.”

Once she was on campus, Johnson found the kinds of engaged faculty, rigorous courses and outside-the-classroom activities she was looking for.

Smith and Dr. Der-Fa Lu, professor of nursing, are among the nursing faculty who have helped to make her time on UW-Eau Claire’s campus so meaningful, Johnson says.

“The things I learned from both professors will make me a better nurse in a real job,” Johnson says. “The skills they taught me are things that I will continue to use every day in my life.”

For example, Johnson says Lu, who was her first clinical instructor at UW-Eau Claire, taught her how to process her thoughts and use reasoning to determine solutions, whether she is caring for a patient or answering a test question.

“Dr. Lu also helped me improve on my confidence as a student when she had me participate in being a peer mentor,” Johnson says. “I was able to share the knowledge she gave me with peers who were a semester behind me.”

Johnson worked with Smith during the rural farms clinical and as a student researcher.

“She pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to figure out how to do things on my own,” Johnson says of Smith. “She taught me how to be a leader in a group yet also be an equal.”

Her time at UW-Eau Claire has exceeded her expectations, in and out of the nursing program, Johnson says.

“Being a Blugold has been an amazing experience for me,” Johnson says. “I have made friends who will last a lifetime, and I couldn’t be more thankful. Moving here as a transfer student was a scary experience, but also forced me to put myself out there. All the professors have pushed me to learn everything I can and have made learning fun, while still preparing me for the real world.

“The opportunities this campus offers is amazing. You just have to talk to your professors about your interests or things you think you might want to try.”