Promoting diversity is particularly relevant in nursing education because there is an emphasis on preparing students to enter a profession that is committed to providing health care to all patients regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. That is why the Gustavus Nursing Department started offering the opportunity for students to perform clinical rotations in Fairbanks and Barrow, Alaska.
Six Gustavus senior nursing majors – Laura Dack, Joshua Heinzen, David Krebs, Larissa Milne, Madeline Schmitz, and Anna Torborg – left for Alaska on Oct. 11. Each student will spend three weeks in Fairbanks and three weeks in Barrow before returning to Minnesota on Nov. 22.
While in Fairbanks, students will do a three-week clinical rotation at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center, and a long-term care facility called the Denali Center. In Barrow, the students will participate in a public health rotation and provide care to a population that is nearly 60 percent Alaska Native. Students will also have the opportunity to go to villages and provide health care and participate in height and weight screenings as part of an obesity prevention grant.
“I was interested in going to Alaska because I wanted an experience that was completely different from what I would have access to in Minnesota,” Heinzen said.
“I thought traveling to Alaska was a great opportunity for me to have a study-abroad experience. Although it isn’t technically out of the United States, the culture in Alaska is very different than in the lower 48 states,” Dack said. “I wanted to come to Alaska to work with the Alaska Natives and see how public health is different when working with a different culture.”
Dack and Heinzen both spent the first three weeks in Fairbanks working at the three different facilities there. Their experiences both in and out of the health care facilities were beneficial to them in many ways.
“The long term care center allowed me to engage more with elders of the population to try to learn more about the Alaska Native culture,” Heinzen said. “I’ve also had the chance to work on a labor and delivery floor, helping to deliver babies and working with laboring patients. I have appreciated that our clinicals have been full time, Monday through Friday, so we’re getting a lot of clinical hours in each unit.”
“In our free time we have gone on a few adventures around Fairbanks,” Dack said. “We went to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention to see some Native art and dancing. One of the nurses we met invited us to her cabin for the afternoon and to see the beautiful sites overlooking the Tanana River. We also attended a University of Alaska-Fairbanks hockey game. It has been a great experience thus far.”
Christian Raether is a 2013 alumnus of Gustavus who took part in the Alaska rotation during his senior year. His experience working with the Native Inupiaqs in Barrow was so influential that he is now working in South Dakota, near Pine Ridge for Indian Health Services, the federal health program for American Indians and Alaska Natives.
“The people I met and places I explored were truly life-changing and I am so grateful to the nursing program for giving me that opportunity. Among the most exciting parts of the trip were the vaccination clinics I participated in with a public health nurse in a small village called Atqasuk,” Raether said. “The village was a short plane trip from Barrow and incredibly remote. The little kids in the village absolutely loved playing with me and I adored their huge smiles and seemingly never ending energy levels. I am so glad I decided to go to Alaska and would highly recommend this trip to any prospective students who are interested.”
As Raether’s experience documents, the Alaska rotation is not only valuable because it provides students with a unique experience, but it can also set students apart when it comes to job prospects.
“I think this experience will be valuable in the future when caring for patients from different cultures. It has been interesting to see the different cultural values incorporated into how the nurse cares for and communicates with the patient,” Dack said. “The experience has also helped me understand some of the stressors that Alaska Natives encounter, such as the loss of their cultural identity and traditional activities.”
The experience offered to them in Alaska is just one reason why Heinzen, Dack and others feel well prepared for the next stage of their life after graduating from Gustavus with a nursing degree.
“The Gustavus nursing program does a great job of showing us the great variety of career paths that are available for an RN,” Dack said. “We have close relationships with all the professors and as a student I feel encouraged by their determination for us to succeed and feel confident in being a nurse after graduation.”
“My experience with the nursing department has been fantastic,” Heinzen said. “My clinical experiences have been phenomenal, and the faculty members have all been first-rate. I couldn’t imagine going to another school, and I feel that the Gustavus nursing program is doing a great job to prepare me for life as a professional nurse.”
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