It’s unfathomable to imagine healthcare without nurses — the warriors in scrubs, the compassionate caregivers to the sick, injured and frightened — they witness birth and death, and all with a smile and a warm touch.

This year, The University of New Mexico Taos branch graduated one student with an associate's degree and 11 students with an ADN/Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

The start to a new beginning
The lamp carried by Florence Nightingale, as she tended to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War (1853-1856), has come to symbolize care in nursing. Historically, the lamp has also been used to represent the enlightenment that comes with knowledge.

“They persevered the ups-and-downs of nursing school, drawing on each other for support and having support from their family and friends,” said Dawn Kittner, UNM-Taos Nursing Program interim director. “In the best of times, nursing school is challenging. We often say it is like a marathon. Perhaps for the Class of 2021, it was more like an ultramarathon. They demonstrated their resilience and flexibility whenever shifts in their education were made related to COVID-19.”  

Single mother, Sandra Jimenez, found it important to have a set schedule and to-do lists. She also wanted to make sure her body and mind were strong and in sync.

“I found myself taking breaks throughout the day to breathe and clear my mind,” she said. “Going on walks and incorporating any type of activity that would help mentally, such as drawing or painting. Then I would get back to the task at hand and complete it.”

Heather LeDoux, mother of two, had a smooth routine going during her first year of study until the pandemic hit.

“Everything changed in an instant,” LeDoux said. “It felt like the world had stopped everything but nursing school. We were forced to transition to online and be at home. This was super challenging because my kids and husband were now at home as well and I had to be a mom, housewife, teacher, and student all in one. All of the lines felt like they just blurred together.” 

As the next semester started, nursing students were allowed to return to clinical sites.

“Everything was centered around the COVID-19 pandemic,” LeDoux said. “As nursing students, we were in the hospitals, testing sites, and vaccination clinics. I worried about bringing COVID into my home, but there were no exceptions. I couldn't pause nursing school, so I just focused on one task at a time, one day at a time, and I prayed a lot.”  

Matthew Vigil understands his fellow graduates’ challenges. And like them, he wasn’t about to throw in the towel.

“I found that social life is a privilege, and in order to succeed in school just about every aspect of your life — and for my family life — had to be managed tightly to the point of being at family functions or events with note cards and books,” he said.

Vigil is the UNM-Taos recipient of the Outstanding New Mexico Nursing Education Consortium (NMNEC) Dual Degree Award, which is presented to an NMNEC Community College student who exemplifies a leader and has truly demonstrated the values of the UNM College of Nursing – academic excellence, diversity and inclusion, innovation, integrity and respect.

“As an adult learner pursuing a second career, he faced many challenges during the cohort. His humility and continued support of the other students was exemplary,” Kittner said. “He remained optimistic and flexible during all of our COVID shutdowns and changes. His positivity was contagious and flowed through the cohort. He cared for a variety of patients in multiple settings and used his bilingual skills to comfort our Spanish-speaking patients. His creative side came out when he presented a poster project in Health Care Participant, which was stunning. During one of the vaccine PODs, he taught the process to administer vaccines to doctors and nurse practitioners with grace and humility. He will truly be an asset to our community after graduation.”

"They demonstrated their resilience and flexibility whenever shifts in their education were made related to COVID-19."  - Dawn Kittner, UNM-Taos Nursing Program interim director

The recent pinning ceremony marks the start of their nursing careers. It was yet another nursing school experience students never forget.

“As a first-generation college student, I felt a wave of happiness and achievement and, of course, I couldn’t help but shed some tears of joy,” Jimenez said. “During nursing school, I have to say I grew mentally. It also gave me a sense of how far I can come and how determined I was to achieve this life-changing accomplishment.”

Now that they’ve earned their degrees and have their pins, they can take their passion and goal of helping people to the real world. Nurses are in great demand all over the country.

The UNM-Taos Nursing program provides an ADN. The entering students can select a dual-degree track, which allows them to achieve an ADN and a BSN concurrently. The dual-degree students can stay in the Taos community for their entire nursing education. The UNM-Taos program partners with the University of New Mexico College of Nursing for the BSN courses. The ADN program is four semesters, and the ADN/BSN program is five semesters. The students graduating with these degrees are eligible to take the NCLEX-RN, a national registry exam. Passing the examination allows them to be licensed as a registered nurse.