From left to right: Rachel Collins, Laura Bowman, and Katy Ahmed

(L-R): Rachel Collins, Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham, Pediatric ICU, Laura Bowman, Huntsville Hospital, Emergency Department, Katy Ahmed, Huntsville Hospital, Surgical Trauma ICU.

Courtesy Katarina Ahmed

Bryant Bank’s Excellence in Nursing Scholarships helped pave the way for December 2020 Nursing graduates to develop the skills necessary to take up roles in the emergency room and trauma ICU, reports The University of Alabama in Huntsville College of Nursing (UAH CON), a part of The University of Alabama System.

The Bryant Bank Excellence in Nursing Scholarship was established in 2015 to award in-state students admitted to the Early Promotion into the UAH Nursing Program (EPNP). The EPNP is an honors program being offered by UAH’s College of Nursing. Highly qualified students who enter UAH as freshmen declaring nursing as their major, and taking all of the lower division nursing coursework on the UAH campus, are guaranteed a slot in upper division nursing courses.

Not only is the program a timely one, aiding students entering the profession during the COVID-19 pandemic, the scholarship is renewable. A full-time course load (12 hours) must be maintained each semester with a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.25 on all lower division Nursing and Charger Foundation-required courses given in the BSN lower division program of study.

One of those scholarship recipients is UAH CON cohort Rachel Collins, who reflects on how she arrived at her decision to enter the nursing field.

"The dream to become a nurse is something that came to me later in life. I always knew I had an interest in science and learning about the human body, but I wasn't sure how I wanted to fuel that interest. I was recruited to play collegiate soccer at The University of Alabama in Huntsville and heard of UAH's incredible nursing program, and decided nursing was the route I wanted to take. With each semester that passed, I gained a stronger understanding and love for the nursing profession."

For fellow 2020 graduate Katarina "Katy" Ahmed, the same choice represented more of a lifelong dream.

"The first recollections I have of planning to do nursing was at four years old," she says. "I knew I was going to be just like my mom. I distinctly remember how she taught me how to properly clean and bandage wounds. In my last semester of nursing school, I grew into the nurse I wanted to be. I had knowledge behind me, but the experience gained from precepting helped me put my knowledge to the test. My desire for direct patient care was solidified as I helped care for my grandmother as she slowly passed away from ovarian cancer. I got to serve her in a tangible way and witness the Hospice Family Care nurses show me how much care families should be treated with during one of the hardest times of life. If I can be even half as comforting, loving and passionate about my patients and families as those nurses, I will have accomplished my desire in this field."

Cohort Laura Bowman reveals that her own journey had striking parallels to Ahmed’s, but reports her personal path was unique as well.

"As a child, I was extraordinarily squeamish," she says. "I got very grossed out by the sight of blood and could not stand anything medically related! I always said I would never have what it takes to be a nurse. However, my grandmother began having a series of strokes when I was a young teenager, and over the next few years I helped care for her. The longer I cared for her, the more I adapted to blood and other bodily fluids. The week before she died she called me her ‘little nurse.’ That statement really stuck with me. It opened my eyes to the fact that I do have what it takes to be a nurse and inspired me to pursue that passion."

When it came to furthering her education, Collins recalls, "I was looking for a university that wasn't only going to help me achieve my goals in my soccer career, but would also push me academically and give me a great education. As soon as I visited UAH, I knew it was the perfect college for me. I was able to be a student athlete while simultaneously getting an incredible nursing education. I loved the campus, and I loved the city of Huntsville."

It was a family connection to the school that helped Ahmed make her selection.

"I heard a lot about the program growing up, since my mom is an alumna of the UAH College of Nursing," she notes. "Although I considered other universities, UAH remained my top choice. Not only did UAH allow me to live at home through college, but I was able to stay with my home church and remain with my closest friends. I was also able to stay out of debt throughout my collegiate career, because UAH offered me the Charger Distinction Scholarship and the Bryant Bank Scholarship. My spot in the Upper Division Program in the CON was solidified as I was offered and accepted the Early Promotion into UAH Nursing Program."

Bowman was blessed with a similar familial connection that helped her narrow her choice as well.

"My dad is actually a UAH alumnus. I grew up in Huntsville and always heard about how amazing the UAH College of Nursing is. Between that and the scholarships UAH offers, it was a no-brainer for me to attend the UAH College of Nursing. UAH Nursing has prepared me to critically think in the real world. Real life patients are so different than textbook ones! However, UAH gave me the building blocks to translate textbook knowledge into real-world applications."

The graduates are especially grateful to the Bryant Bank Scholarship and the profound impact it had on their lives and being admitted into the Early Promotion into UAH Nursing Program.

"It meant the world to me!" Collins says. "It really instilled in me the confidence to know that people believed in me. It helped me to study hard and push for the highest academic excellence I could pursue. The scholarship also meant I could graduate without any student debt! Receiving the Bryant Bank Scholarship and being admitted into the Early Promotion into UAH Nursing Program further validated that I was going to be part of such a special profession that is valued and appreciated by so many people. Knowing I had this support gave me confidence to go fearlessly into the nursing profession."

Ahmed wholeheartedly agrees. "The Charger Distinction Scholarship, Bryant Bank Scholarship and the Early Promotion into UAH Nursing Program were, above all, an answer to prayer! All the perseverance and tears in high school paid off, and those three opportunities allowed me to go to UAH without the fear of going into debt. The Bryant Bank Scholarship meant a lot, because it is specifically for nursing students and was an incredible asset to earning my degree. People outside of my family and friends were actively investing in me and my studies! The EPNP allowed my mind to be at peace, knowing that I had a place in the Upper Division Program. These three incredible blessings were affirmations that determination, perseverance and a strong work ethic pays off with high rewards later down the road."

All three nurses feel the rigorous UAH Nursing academic program has prepared them well for the work they are doing now.

"UAH Nursing pushed me to a limit academically that I couldn't have ever imagined," Collins says. "While it was difficult, I came out of it knowing I was going to be able to add something special to the nursing profession. UAH Nursing empowered me to be a lifelong learner and to always question the status quo. While I knew it would be a challenge coming out of nursing school and going straight into the intensity of the Pediatric ICU, I never doubted I had the knowledge and capability to someday excel in such a challenging unit."

"I feel like I thought nursing would be much more straightforward as a student," Bowman says. "The emergency room is a very stressful and fast-paced environment. You can fall behind so easily if you do not have good time management skills. You have to adapt quickly to changing situations. You also have to use interpersonal communication skills to interact effectively with both patients and providers. I love the fast paced environment, even though I was not anticipating it being quite as hectic as it actually is."

"I feel the UAH CON fulfilled its objective in giving me a solid base to build on in my chosen specialty," Ahmed adds. "Overall, nursing school requires scheduling and prioritization. These skills are applicable in the nursing profession as well, as nurses must ensure all aspects of patient care are done appropriately and in a timely manner. Classroom changes due to COVID-19 taught me flexibility, which is also applicable to nursing. I must credit and thank Dr. Anna Aultman and Dr. Sharon Coffey, who instructed me in the Critical Care course. Daily I recall the information, advice and critical thinking skills they persistently pushed during each lecture. I would also be remiss if I breezed over the Pathophysiology and Pharmacology courses. I use all of that information now to help process complex disease processes and medication effects."

Collins is working in the Pediatric ICU at Children's of Alabama in Birmingham, and admits that her first days on the job were challenging.

"Starting off, orientation in the Pediatric ICU initially intimidated me because I knew the expectations would be higher for me as a licensed RN compared to when I was a student," she says. "However, I quickly learned that it's okay to admit you are unsure how to do something, even as an RN. Most everyone is willing to teach you new things and walk you through unfamiliar procedures. One difference I've noticed is the expectation to manage my time. I've had to learn quickly how to manage hourly assessments, charting and giving meds simultaneously. I have loved my time so far working in the Pediatric ICU. I love the challenge of caring for such critically ill patients and getting the opportunity to critically think every shift I work."

Ahmed, on the other hand, found her start at Huntsville Hospital in the Surgical Trauma Intensive Care Unit (STICU).

"As a new hire, I tried to go in with an open mind, ready to learn a specific patient population, new skills and drastically increase my understanding of complex patients and critical thinking," she says. "I expected the unit to be a challenging environment to begin in, and it has not yet disappointed. However, I have been extremely welcomed. I truly enjoy the unit, my coworkers and what I get to do each day. Every nurse has been willing to help me and explain procedures and patients’ situations so I will have a deeper understanding of critical thinking and patient care. This information is building on the foundation that I received while at UAH, especially in the Critical Care course."

As for what it is like to go into their first nursing jobs in the middle of a pandemic, the recent grads stress their understanding of what this commitment really means during a time of so much uncertainty.

"It is honestly extraordinarily stressful," Bowman admits. "Walking into an environment where everyone is already exhausted can be discouraging. However, I am glad we are able to provide some relief to those who are already so overworked. As nurses, we care for patients equally, regardless of their diagnosis. So, COVID patient or not, they all receive the same quality of care. I am glad to be able to provide that care. Hopefully, this will all be behind us sometime soon."

Collins chimes in: "It's a difficult and simultaneously rewarding time to be a part of the healthcare field. Limiting visitors, especially in a pediatric unit, is hard on the families and the kids we care for. While it's a hard time emotionally and financially for many people, I am empowered to know that I get to be in a profession that is making a difference throughout this pandemic."

"COVID-19 has affected every career in some form or fashion, but especially the healthcare field," Ahmed points out. "Although those in the medical and nursing professions have made a vow along the way to help those under their care regardless of the diagnosis, COVID-19 has been an incredible hurdle that everyone is still dealing with every day. Although I love the unit and my job, it can be scary to go into work! I have been exposed to COVID-19, and even with all of the precautions in place, will most likely be again."

Then, after a pause to reflect, the young graduate goes on:

"But, from four years old to now, my dream has never changed! I made it through an incredibly rigorous nursing school. Through all of my education, I have also been learning the skills, both physical and emotional, to be the best nurse I can be. Starting a career in nursing during a pandemic was nothing I ever expected could happen. Sometimes I am scared and overwhelmed, but ultimately I have peace of mind. I know I was put into this role for a reason. This career is not easy, but in the end when I go home, I know that I did everything I could for my patients. I am thankful to UAH and my professors who taught me more than what can be found in a textbook. They lead by example, and I hope one day I can be an example for the next generation of nurses."

Bryant Bank was founded on the belief that Alabama needs a bank that is focused on the needs of Alabamians. It was granted a charter by the State of Alabama Banking Department in 2005, and the company maintains 16 branches in Alabama, including two in Huntsville. The first Huntsville branch opened in 2007. For more information about the Bryant Bank Excellence in Nursing Scholarship Program, visit here.