On the Frontlines of Health Care: Veterans Take on Leadership Roles as Nursing Students at Rutgers University–Camden

By Ed Moorhouse

As medical professionals on the frontlines of health care, nurses must remain calm, level-headed, and prepared for anything that may arise in order to administer safe and proper care to their patients.

Student veterans (left to right) Jennifer Wain, Robert Collins, and Bobbie Poller use their leadership skills as nursing majors.

Student veterans (left to right) Jennifer Wain, Robert Collins, and Bobbie Poller use their leadership skills as nursing majors.

In many ways, those qualities are a lot like what is required of someone in the military, who must rely on his or her training and instincts in a given situation.

“In the military, we have to make quick decisions and the best decisions that we can in that moment,” says Jennifer Wain, a field artillery second lieutenant in the New Jersey National Guard and a sophomore nursing major at Rutgers University–Camden.

“There’s a parallel with nursing because when a patient comes in, you have to evaluate the situation in a short amount of time,” says Wain, a Philadelphia resident. “Through the military, we’re able to develop those skills and they are skills that we can apply to nursing.”

Wain is one of several active service or military veterans at Rutgers–Camden pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing. For many of them, their military experience is helping them make the transition to the nursing profession.

“As veterans, I think sometimes we set the example, or others will look to us to set an example,” says Robert Collins, a junior nursing major from Pittman and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. “I find it important every day to take on that role. We’re here to set an example and strive for excellence because that’s what we’ve always done. I think other students recognize that, gravitate toward it, and aspire to follow that example.”

Collins was recently featured in G.I. Jobs magazine, a publication that for six years in a row has named Rutgers University–Camden a military-friendly school. Rutgers–Camden’s Office of Veterans Affairs assits student veterans with getting acclimated to civilian and academic life, and it encourages student veteran participation in various clubs and activities on campus.

Under the leadership of director Fred Davis, the office partners with the Rutgers–Camden Career Center to host career fairs that are attended by a host of companies looking to hire more veterans; has established a Veterans Emergency Fund, which enables student veterans in dire circumstances to take a temporary loan and repay it on a monthly basis using their V.A. benefits; and has set up the Jeremy Kane Scholarship, funded through the annual Jeremy Kane 5K Memorial Run and named for a former Rutgers–Camden student killed in combat, to provide scholarship assistance to student veterans.

Wain and Poller prepare for a nursing simulation in a Rutgers-Camden lab.

Wain and Poller prepare for a nursing simulation in a Rutgers-Camden lab.

Each of the nursing student veterans are proud to be part of such a military-friendly environment.

“The Office of Veterans Affairs has brought a lot of the veterans on campus together in a really good way,” says Bobbie Poller, a junior nursing major from Moorestown and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

“A lot of us are from different branches of service, but consider one another family nonetheless,” Poller says. “We help each other in many different ways. Fred and his office are continuously trying to excel in helping veterans on this campus and raising the bar every year through networking in the neighboring communities.”

That camaraderie is another similarity veterans share with nurses.

“The bond or the brotherhood or sisterhood becomes ingrained in veterans,” says Elizabeth Scannell-Desch, associate dean of baccalaureate programs at the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden and a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “Some civilian environments cut that off, but at Rutgers–Camden, there is this strong network of support so that veterans don’t feel alone or like an outsider. In fact, they become part of an organization that is bigger than themselves.”

“I feel a bond with my fellow veterans,” Scannell-Desch says. “There’s a bond there that I don’t share with others. It’s the same for nurses. We’re in the trenches together. It’s an extension of that camaraderie that you get with fellow veterans. In nursing, we have each other’s backs. That’s very similar to the veteran mentality, only we would say, ‘I’ve got your six.’ You’re shoulder to shoulder with fellow nurses and you’ve got a mission to accomplish: safe and quality patient care.”

Scannell-Desch says she thinks many veterans are attracted to nursing because of the exposure to the medical field they may have had while on deployment.

“They may have seen, up close and personal, the type of work that medics, nurses, and physicians do,” she says.

But Rutgers–Camden’s veteran nursing majors have various reasons for trading in the fatigues for scrubs. For Angel Ortiz, a junior nursing major, Army veteran, and Camden native now living in Philadelphia, it was a very personal experience that drew him to the field.

“My father got sick and I was taking care of him in the hospital and at home, and that’s what got me into nursing,” says Ortiz, an Army mechanic who fixed helicopters during his service time. “I decided that I was going to go to school for accounting, but after he died, I wanted to become a nurse.”

As a nurse, Ortiz wants to work in trauma, while Poller is seeking a career in either gerontological care or in an emergency room setting. Collins aspires to work in critical cardiac care, and Wain’s goal is to work with older adults.

“I just want to be in a position to make my patients’ lives better,” Wain says. “For us, those roles are leadership roles.”

A natural fit for Rutgers–Camden’s group of student veterans.

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