uci nursing school student kelley cowan

“Everything I had planned for has gone out the window,” says third-year nursing student Kelley Cowan.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended life for everyone. Nursing students are no exception.

Thousands of third- and fourth-year nursing students are learning to navigate unexpected curriculum changes, financial pressures and getting the required clinical hours they need to graduate and become licensed.

As soon as California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order, in-person classes and in-clinic work for nursing students were canceled.

Everyone was instructed to head home and learning went online.

‘It’s an interesting time’

Now people such as third-year nursing student Kelley Cowan wonder what’s next.

Starting in the third year, students begin learning hands-on skills in clinic, something they can’t do now.

“Everything I had planned for has gone out the window,” she says. “My curriculum is changing on a daily basis. It’s an interesting time.”

Cowan is not alone in her uncertainty. In her role as a student advisor, she counsels other students who are also wondering what the pandemic will mean for them both academically and financially.

Meeting graduation requirements

The California Board of Registered Nurses (BRN) has implemented changes to the graduation requirements to meet the new reality.

Ordinarily, nursing students are required to have 25% of their hours done in virtual simulations. The BRN raised the percentage of hours to 50% to accommodate virtual learning.

The remaining hours are typically spent doing hands-on training in a clinic under the supervision of a nurse. Instead, the BRN has allowed virtual visits with patients to count toward this requirement.

During these virtual visits, the students answer patients’ questions about COVID-19, follow up with them after discharge and triage their symptoms. Other students are working at UCI Medical Center and ambulatory site entrances to screen faculty, staff and visitors before they enter.

Despite everyone’s best efforts, Cowan says, students still may not graduate on time.

Academic uncertainty and financial pressures

Being a nursing student is an expensive venture in and of itself.

Cowan says she and many of her classmates can only work part-time because of the rigorous curriculum. They often fill in the gaps with student loans and scholarships.

On top of that, there are costs throughout their nursing education that add up: supplies for skills training, textbooks, test prep fees, housing costs and more.

The coronavirus pandemic has added even more financial challenges for nursing students, Cowan says.

“A lot of students are afraid of the financial burden this is potentially bringing up,” she says, noting that many have given up their housing for the academic year and have had to move back home.

A number of students have lost their jobs as businesses temporarily close their doors. Others are full-time workers with families and spouses who have lost their jobs.

Critical support at a challenging time

Despite the difficulties and uncertainty amid, Cowan is grateful for the nursing school faculty and her small nursing cohort.

“We were already close to begin with. We’re just trying to help each other out through this and support each other as much as we can.”