Serving Our Students in a Post-Pandemic World

Nicole Damico Nicole Damico, PhD, CRNA, CHSE, FAANA
Herbert T. Watson Endowed Professor
Department Chairperson, Associate Professor, Nurse Anesthesia

With every week, we see more signs of a return to our daily practices before COVID-19 upended our lives. Even though caseloads continue to decline, except for an occasional variant-driven spike, we haven’t completely returned to our previous ways of doing things.

And we don’t plan to. As in life, we’re evolving VCU Nurse Anesthesia with the lessons we’ve taken from the pandemic.

These years helped us recognize that some of those in-the-moment changes could reshape the academic experience – from our instructional model to student and faculty mental health and wellness, an issue that has taken on deeper meaning over the past three years.

Let’s first look at the Nurse Anesthesia curriculum, and how we engage our students, might evolve. Even though our program was an early VCU pioneer in using distance learning and creating a hybrid learning environment, the pandemic forced nearly all programs to recreate classroom instruction in a virtual environment. It was a major disruption at that moment, but, over time, students found they enjoyed the convenience afforded by not being required to come into the classroom.

Of course, lecture-style classes lend themselves more readily to a virtual experience. And over time, attending class from the kitchen table or screened-in porch became second nature. So as we moved closer to today’s near-normalcy, many students told us they didn’t want to return to fully in-person learning — to save, in particular, commute times.

Still, the heart of a Nurse Anesthesia degree is mastering the skills required in the operating room. You need the in-person experiences of the simulation labs and clinical rotations. Nothing in a virtual setting comes close to replicating hands-on learning under the watchful eye of professors, who can confirm when students are making the right choices or ask questions to identify mistakes before a human life is put at risk.

So while simulation will always be in-person, we are looking across our DNAP program to determine opportunities to best meet our students where they are while balancing the demands of the doctoral program.

The type of students we’re attracting also is changing. While in the past, we saw nurses planning for strategic career growth, today we’re seeing more applicants coming straight to us from overcrowded ICUs and short-staffed hospitals.

Provider burnout is real. These students were working extra shifts for months on end, with no time to ease their burdens or clear their minds before they walked in our doors.

Again, we return to the issue of meeting students where they are – in this case, we’re talking about their overall well-being, which has never been a more important part of supporting students during their time at VCU. This is a national conversation with and about our healthcare providers. Consider our just-graduated class: Their entire training occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. They came to us with an emphasis on wellness, because it was very proximal to them.

Already, we’ve launched two initiatives under that umbrella, and we’re offering stand-alone services and integrating important themes across the curriculum. In our student wellness track, we’re teaching students more about stress management and general self-care within the healthcare profession. We are working to augment our instructional bench, a challenge made even tougher due to a national faculty shortage.

Helping to shape our future direction will be our three new student committees.

  • The Simulation Committee is exploring how we can enhance and broaden our offerings, which is a key goal of mine for this year; a pilot project is underway.
  • The Wellness Committee is curating resources, activities, and speakers on related topics to give students healthy options as they navigate their coursework. A fun program last fall was a 10K running event that also contributed to fellowship among students and faculty.
  • The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee is building a mentoring program with alumni and expanding its mission to support and grow our minority students.

Our recent decision to eliminate the GRE as an admissions requirement should help to broaden our applicant pool, so we’ll look closely at our numbers later this spring. For now, we’re excited to share that we’ve just started our largest cohort – with 61 students in the etpDNAP, 42% of whom are non-white students. Our application numbers jumped 40% during the 2022 cycle, and we anticipate another large pool of applicants this year.

Finally, I want to thank the ongoing community support of our program, particularly two recent generous gifts:

  • The Addie Pontiflet scholarship, which honors a former faculty member who died in 2007, will help us recruit and support students with demonstrated interest in equality, diversity or social justice for the African American community through community activities, social groups, student clubs or organizations. We also will look for recipients who are engaged in internal and professional DEI initiatives.
  • The Stephen Lunsford Endowment, established by his widow, Lynne LaVasseur, to celebrate his career. Lunsford trained as a Navy Corpsman, then served as a nurse anesthetist who practiced across the country before settling in Lynchburg.

Gifts such as these help our department continue to meet the latest demands of our practice and our students. We appreciate each dollar pledged to VCU Nurse Anesthesia, and we work in partnership with our donors to invest these funds strategically to generate the greatest impact. Please visit our giving site to learn more.

Thank you for your continued support of VCU Nurse Anesthesia and our mission to train tomorrow’s CRNAs to keep our patients safe.

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