‘When someone attends nursing school, they become a nurse, down to their core’
Every winter and spring commencement, nursing students at the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) line up, dressed in their best, to await their recognition and pinning ceremony that precedes their graduation at CSM’s La Plata Campus. But for one of those students awaiting their turn during the recent winter commencement, she could not stand still like the others. Kara Leonard, 35, of Lexington Park nervously paced back and forth near the line of her peers. At times, a family member accompanied her and could be seen encouraging her as Leonard paced.
Members of the Nursing Class of Fall 2016 at CSM had selected Leonard as the student speaker for the ceremony, and Leonard was anxious about doing justice to the moment, she said. She struggled with the challenge before her, conveying in just a short speech how the CSM nursing program had transformed the students into nurses, the students into friends. Even after the nursing students processed in to the venue and took their places, Leonard spoke to a faculty member as Leonard approached the stage, “I don’t think I can do this. You may have to finish this for me.” The enormity of the experience, the relationships and the moment were almost too much.
“I was so proud to be up there speaking and even more proud to be part of that graduating class,” Leonard said later. “What an honor to have been given the chance to represent those amazing people.” And just like she survived the challenging associate degree program at CSM, Leonard survived that speech.
Leonard’s story is an excellent example of the transformative experience that is nursing school, said Dr. Laura Polk, chair of CSM’s Health Science Division. “As Kara has learned, the profession of nursing is not something one does as a job. When someone attends nursing school, they become a nurse, down to their core. It is a profession that infuses one’s whole being.”
Leonard is the mother of three children, ages 11, 9 and 7, and is married to a retired U.S. Marine. She has already had success at previous careers, starting a nonprofit with her mother and working as a personal trainer. About two years ago, Leonard said she sensed that it was time for a change in her life and, seeking a fulfilling career she became convinced that nursing, with its ability to impact others’ well-being in an immediate and powerful way, was the best new direction for her. She speaks passionately about the educational experience leading up to this new career and about the camaraderie that nursing students build during that education.
During her years at CSM, Leonard split her attention between family needs and class requirements. Those two components alone provided plenty of stress. But to enter in the field of nursing, Leonard said, adds a special pressure beyond family and educational pressures. “You slowly start to understand the gravity of what you’re taking on. The weight of what you’re doing,” she said. “You realize ‘I need to be very good at this. I need to know what I’m doing.’ It’s a big responsibility.”
That pressure and time spent learning together forged uncommonly strong friendships between the nursing students, Leonard said, comparing it to the camaraderie found in the military. “The friends I made in nursing school? The bond is almost indescribable.”
The high caliber of the faculty at CSM makes the nursing program, Leonard said. “The faculty in this program are some of the best human beings I’ve ever met,” she said. Professor Rose Miller impacted Leonard and others in the program. “She just commands respect. We were all in awe of her,” Leonard said. The graduating nurses voted to have Miller as one of their faculty pinners in the CSM nursing recognition ceremony.
Professor Morag Dahlstrom also made an impression. Leonard said Dahlstrom was tough and “incredible.” She was responsible for grading students on how well they performed certain skills under pressure. Leonard recalls Dahlstrom repeatedly encouraging her through this. “She would say over and over, ‘You’re better than what you think you are. You can do this.’ I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more championed by an instructor.”
After graduation, Leonard took a position in the RN residency program in the trauma burn unit at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. “It’s an honor … to be in a position where you can effect change on someone else’s life,” Leonard said of her new career. “I find my purpose in my service to others. CSM was the vehicle I needed to get there. It was a good experience. It was hard. It was a necessary experience. For that, I will be forever grateful.”
Of Leonard’s experience, Polk said, “Students typically begin the program with very little clear understanding of the profession or the multiple roles nurses play in health care. They leave school ready to function as autonomous professionals capable of high level critical thinking, ready to work collaboratively as a member of an interdisciplinary team.”
The CSM program promotes nursing as an art and a science, where the dynamic interconnectivity among the person, environment, nursing and health offers a unique perspective for providing care, Polk said. At CSM, nursing education fosters lifelong learning and promotes personal and professional growth. Students are responsible for working collaboratively with faculty in a supportive environment that fosters exploration of ideas and facilitates student development.
During their nursing program at CSM, students participate in class activities, clinical experiences and in-lab experiences. Program graduates are eligible to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) or for the Practical Nurse (NCLEX-PN).
“Our mission is to educate future nursing professionals through exemplary academic programs and collaborative community partnerships,” Polk said. “The CSM nursing program’s strong faculty, cutting edge technology and exceptional practical experiences help forge a graduate ready for patient care, leadership and advocacy. They are ready to make a difference in a global society in their role as professional nurses.”
CSM’s Associate Nursing Degree and Practical Nursing Certificate programs were recently re-accredited and granted a full eight years of accreditation with the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. CSM established its practical nursing program in 1975 and associate nursing degree since 1979. Typically the nursing program is among the top degree programs awarded at the winter and spring graduation ceremonies.
CSM Nursing Recognition. 1 p.m., May 18, College of Southern Maryland, La Plata Campus, Physical Education Center (PE Building), 8730 Mitchell Road, La Plata. CSM nursing graduates will be honored. Free. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.csmd.edu/student-services/registrar/graduation/.