AMHERST, Mass. – Serena Sarage, a native of South Hadley, has realized her two-pronged dream of moving to Colorado and joining the heroic efforts of the nursing workforce during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Similarly, Melissa Petersen, who grew up in Maine, has been hired as a newly graduated nurse into a residency program to care for seriously ill cardiac patients at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
Their quick entry into the nursing field at a time when nurses are desperately needed was made possible by a University of Massachusetts Amherst request to move up their formal graduation date one month, to Jan. 1, so they could qualify to schedule the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to apply for licensure as a registered nurse. UMass Amherst’s request to accommodate nursing graduates moving out of state was approved by Marty Meehan, president of the five-campus University of Massachusetts system.
Nursing graduates in Massachusetts seeking employment in Massachusetts were already in a position to move quickly into the workforce. An earlier graduation date was not significant to them because the Commonwealth allows them to take the NCLEX with an official transcript alone, which was available Dec. 14.
As a result of this accommodation for out-of-state employment, which was also made last year for UMass Medical School graduates, fall semester graduates from the UMass Amherst accelerated bachelor of science in nursing program already are working or poised to start high-demand hospital jobs across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. The accelerated nursing degree program, designed for students who already have an undergraduate degree, takes 17 months to complete and wraps up in the fall semester, which this year ended earlier than usual due to the pandemic schedule.
“Because of the change with the conferral date, I was able to take the NCLEX sooner and apply in time so I could get this opportunity,” says Sarage, who has been hired to work at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora in one of the top-ranking orthopedic units in the nation. “If the graduation date wasn’t changed, I honestly don’t think I’d be here, so I’m super thankful for that. My heart was set on this hospital.”
Along with other students heading out of state, Sarage, who earned her first bachelor’s degree at UMass Amherst in public health, and Petersen approached nursing leaders for help, including Allison Vorderstrasse, the dean of nursing.
“This was an issue this year in particular because the semester ended earlier than normal and there was a larger lapse of time between finishing their course work and requirements and the actual conferral of the degree,” Vorderstrasse explains. “Some students had lined up potential jobs or residencies and were feeling the pressure to get their NCLEX exam completed so they could start those positions.”
Finding a location to take the proctored exam was more challenging than usual, as well, because of pandemic restrictions that limit the testing centers’ capacity, the dean adds.
Petersen decided to return to college for a nursing degree at UMass Amherst after working as a medical assistant in a healthcare center in Burlington, Vt., where she had earned her first degree, in anthropology, from the University of Vermont and worked as an EMT. She had planned to go to medical school or become a physician assistant but discovered at the Burlington clinic that she preferred the greater patient interaction of nursing.
“I was doing blood draws, giving vaccines, doing intake work with patients,” Petersen says. “I saw what the nurses were doing – talking with patients about symptoms, doing the medical histories – and realized I wanted to do that instead.”
She completed her nursing internship at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, working on the neurological stepdown unit, where seriously ill patients who had been in the intensive care unit were sent to continue treatment under close watch.
Petersen was eager to start her nursing career as soon as possible for obvious reasons: “We are in the middle of a global pandemic and there’s a nursing shortage.” Without the early conferral of her degree, she would not have been able to get in the queue to take the NCLEX in time to start the job she was offered.
In her nurse residency position on Vanderbilt Medical Center’s cardiac stepdown unit, she’ll be working with patients recovering from severe cardiac conditions. “I enjoy the care that’s delivered on that kind of floor because there’s a lot of patient interaction while you still are providing a high level of care,” says Petersen, who sought work in Nashville because her longtime boyfriend is in graduate school there. “Luckily, with nursing, you can pretty much go anywhere.”