Michelle Martinez isn’t your typical nursing student. While most of her fellow nurses-in-training at James Madison University are preparing to practice in civilian hospitals or health centers, Martinez, 23, plans to be a nurse in the U.S. Army, and might be in situations where she faces a different set of challenges.
“The traumas are going to be a lot more extreme,” she says. “You’re going to have emotions you can’t deal with until after you’ve treated the patient — you might be taking care of the terrorist or you might be taking care of the soldier.”
Most military nurses earn their bachelor’s degree in nursing through a civilian program. There isn’t much need for different coursework. “Even in military hospitals, our duties are the same as in civilian hospitals,” says Chelsea Yeung, 23, a nursing student at George Mason University who also plans to work as a nurse in the Army.
Yeung and Martinez are both getting the military training they need through ROTC programs, which complement their nursing studies. For example, Yeung plans to work in military hospitals but still gets field training through ROTC. “Even though I won’t be in the field, they train us as though we are going to go into the field,” she says.
Though the extra training is valuable, it means military students have more responsibilities than their civilian counterparts. To accommodate her ROTC courses, where she learns about military leadership and tactics, Martinez had to up her course load from the usual 16 credit hours per semester to as many as 22 hours.
ROTC cadets are also required to complete basic training and pass physical readiness tests. Some spend one weekend every month drilling with their units. Martinez, who is in the National Guard, completed 11 weeks of basic training during summer vacation. But when it came time to pick the type of unit she would join, she was limited by scheduling.
“The transportation unit’s training course was the only one that wouldn’t conflict with school,” she says.
Scheduling is one of the major challenges of juggling military duties with education, especially when it comes to programs like nursing, which include hours-long labs and clinical work experience.
Professors and administrators at many schools work hard to accommodate students’ military requirements.
At George Mason University’s nursing program, for example, it’s not unusual to reschedule labs or even move exams to accommodate students’ military requirements, says Odette Willis, coordinator of the undergraduate nursing programs.
“It’s a challenge to coordinate both sets of courses so students can get the maximum benefit out of both,” Willis says. “We both accommodate each other’s schedules and needs.”
And it requires compromise. For example, if a George Mason student has a military science course that overlaps a nursing class by half an hour, he or she might have to be late regularly to the class, Willis says.
“Both parties are understanding,” says Yeung of her George Mason nursing and ROTC programs. “They have a mutual understanding of how time-consuming each thing is.”
To help, George Mason has appointed Willis as a dedicated military liaison to help ROTC cadets and active-duty reservists with the extra challenges they face. If they have a three-day military training weekend, she works with faculty to ensure they have time off. If they need to take a physical readiness test, “I make sure that they get it done and don’t slack off,” says Willis, who retired from the Navy Nurse Corps after 32 years of service.
Though the challenges are greater, for Martinez, the career path felt like a perfect fit. In fact, she decided to join ROTC to help pay for her education shortly after she decided to major in nursing, and things began to fall into place from there.
“It just clicked for me that I wanted to provide care. It made me want to help those who are helping us,” she says.
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