Students Care for Veterans While Starting Nursing Career
Veterans of the U.S. armed forces often share a common trait—valor.
Valor is defined as great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle.
Last year, two undergraduate nursing students had the opportunity to care for veterans when they participated in an appropriately named internship called the VA Learning Opportunities Residency (VALOR) Program.
The students were selected for this honor by the South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS), which provides health care services to veterans in South Texas. The students worked at the system’s Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital, which is adjacent to UT Health San Antonio.
Cynthia O’Neal, Ph.D., RN, associate dean for undergraduate studies, said the VALOR program is a very beneficial way for selected individuals to successfully navigate the transition from the role of an undergraduate nursing student to practice as a B.S.N. prepared registered nurse at the VA.
“We are excited the VA has implemented this program and undergraduate students who have an interest in the veteran population can consider this avenue in their career trajectory. The VA is a valued partner with whom we have an established history of collaborative initiatives designed to benefit the health care of veterans. We appreciate this important opportunity to help foster and support student passion for serving the health needs of veterans,” said Dr. O’Neal, who holds the Amy Shelton & V.H. McNutt Distinguished Professorship in Nursing in honor of the Nurses of the Armed Forces.
The VALOR Program, offered through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is for outstanding nursing students who have completed their junior year in an accredited, traditional Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. The Department of Veterans Affairs granted STVHCS a five-year program with a minimum of two students per year and more if funding is available.
Nancy Cuevas-Soto, RN, STVHCS chief of nursing education, said this new internship program will help the system reach the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations in the IOM’s 2010 report “The Future of Nursing: Leadership Change, Advancing Health.” The IOM’s goal is to increase the number of nurses nationwide with baccalaureate degrees from 50 percent to 80 percent by 2020.
“This internship is an excellent recruiting tool. We want to recruit the best of the best. By partnering with the School of Nursing at UT Health San Antonio, we are bringing on board a higher standard of nurses,” she said. “We should reach 80 percent by 2020. We are already at 90 percent in the medical-surgical unit.”
To be eligible to apply for the internship, nursing students must have a minimum 3.0 grade point average, have at least one clinical experience at STVHCS, be able to complete 400 hours during the summer, and be willing to work two days or 12-hour shifts per month once school begins in the fall.
During the internship, the VALOR students develop competencies in clinical nursing at a VA-approved health care facility. Learning opportunities during the internship include didactic or classroom experiences, competency-based clinical practice with a qualified RN preceptor, and participation in nursing-focused clinical conferences, where they are required to present a clinical case. When the students graduate and pass their National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), they can apply for full-time positions.
With Cuevas-Soto, VALOR Program Coordinators Victoria Dittmar, M.S.N., RN, CNE, clinical faculty coordinator for the VA/UT Health Dedicated Education Unit, and Wesley Richardson, Ph.D., M.S.N., RN, CNL, track coordinator for the school’s Clinical Nurse Leader Program, wrote the proposal for the VALOR internship in December 2016 and received approval in March 2017. In collaboration with unit nurse managers, they made their selection in the spring so the students could work the required 400 hours from May through September.
“When we were selecting our first two interns, we looked at students interested in veterans’ health care. It was very important to not only get the best and brightest, but those who want to dedicate their careers to serving veterans,” Dittmar said.
Richardson said some nurses graduate not knowing which population they want to serve; the initial VALOR interns, Laura Martinez and Caleigh Cervantes, knew they wanted to care for the veteran population.
Dittmar said the two VALOR interns received a well-rounded, enriched experience at the VA hospital. “They worked in many specialty areas, including mental health, surgical, cardiac, wound care, GI lab and dialysis.”
Cuevas-Soto said the students also do all the onboarding activities—including new employee hospital orientation and nursing orientation—like any newly hired employee, she said. Their clinical orientation is supplemented by continuing education classes, unit-based in-services, and nursing grand rounds.
Cervantes said she was thrilled to be accepted as a VALOR intern. “I want to serve the veteran population. They have done so much for us. My grandpa served in the military. It is a way for me to give back—a way to thank them,” she said.
Cervantes, who graduated in December with her B.S.N., said one of her favorite parts of the internship was working with her preceptor, an experienced registered nurse who works one-on-one with the student.
Richardson said the preceptor helps the VALOR intern transition from student to professional. “The preceptor’s major role is helping the interns learn VA expectations, policies and procedures, complete competencies, and generally provide veteran-centered care. They work together to do this.”
Martinez, who also graduated in December, said her father is a veteran, and she has a really good connection with veterans. “The VA hospital feels like home to me. It felt very natural to be there,” she said. “I appreciate the work ethic of all the nurses there. The nurses are all great role models for me.”
The VALOR internship was incredible, Martinez said. “I was on the med-surg unit, and I really got to build a relationship with all the nurses. I learned so much in that unit, and I was able to care for different kinds of patients. The internship prepared me to be a better nurse, helped me to mature as a nurse, and made me more confident in my abilities to be a nurse.”
Martinez and Cervantes both passed the NCLEX, which is the national exam required for licensure as a registered nurse, and were hired in their respective units at the VA hospital.
Richardson said response to these first VALOR interns has been incredibly positive. “We have been told this program needs to continue every year. The nurse managers have been very pleased with the VALOR interns. We expect their transition from student to nurse to be quicker. They will be better prepared and more secure in their abilities. This is a very smooth transition into professional nursing. And, the patients are cared for by a highly qualified, competent nurse who is familiar with the VA system.”