‘Unstoppable Courage’: Chaffey Nursing Class of ’21 Defined by ‘Firsts’

After a whirlwind year of “firsts,” the graduates of Chaffey College’s 2021 cohorts are nurses at last.
 
In December 2021, the pandemic-tempered classes became the first Chaffey nursing grads to attend an in-person graduation ceremony in three years. The event was also the first-ever nursing graduation in 115 cohorts to be livestreamed, with family and friends in attendance virtually around the country.
 
It was a fitting send-off for a group of students defined by once-in-a-lifetime experiences, including being among the very first health care professionals to administer the COVID-19 vaccine in late 2020. And while the pandemic shut down their studies for an entire semester in 2020, it couldn’t stop these future nurses from earning their degrees and answering the call for health care professionals no matter what.
 
“Finally, we got to have a live graduation,” beams Dr. Lisa Doget, Chaffey’s Associate Degree in Nursing Director. She explains that while the class of 2020 did graduate, they weren’t able to have a ceremony amid the tumult of the shutdown. For the next graduation, Chaffey hosted a purely virtual celebration. With students finally allowed to participate in the traditional pinning ceremony in 2021, things would get emotional.  
 
“It was actually a really lovely ceremony,” recalls Doget. “It’s a tradition that’s very time-honored to be pinned… That pin is only their blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice.”
 
In addition to receiving Chaffey’s unique nursing pin, students held electric candles and recited the Florence Nightingale Pledge together. The pledge was created back in 1893 as a modified Hippocratic oath, named for the founder of modern nursing. Says Doget, “It’s a tradition long-honored for nursing schools where they pledge to be a good nurse.”
 
In the wake of the pandemic, the opportunity to come together to continue that tradition became more meaningful than ever. For nurses who had been sent home 21 months before, with no idea when they would return to campus or clinical sites, graduating in person would represent a surreal celebration of determination and survival.
 
“These individuals could easily have quit and moved on to something else — nevertheless, they persisted,” effuses Vocational Nursing Director Shelley Eckvahl, who attended the history-making LVN pinning ceremony. She believes that students’ refusal to give up will continue to pay dividends in their careers. “I promise each of you that this persistence and your dedication to your calling will aid you and benefit your patients throughout your nursing careers.”
 
While the pandemic disrupted their studies, it also illustrated exactly why these future health care professionals couldn’t stop. With the need for nurses in the area “significant and noticeable,” there’s little time to waste in fueling the workforce.
 
“We’re so glad graduates will be able to help address the nursing shortage,” says Eckvahl.
 
Both the ADN and VN programs held their own in-person pinning ceremonies to celebrate. And though their graduation was pushed back by an entire semester, the ceremony was well worth the wait, as class president Tyler Anderson opined in her keynote speech at the ADN graduation:
 
“A few unprecedented obstacles, a couple of speed bumps, a worldwide pandemic, and an extension we didn’t plan for,” recalled Anderson. “Chaffey nursing school is not for the faint of heart — and we added a global pandemic.”
 
Yet despite the staggering setbacks, the nascent nurses completed 468 clinical hours, 126 preceptorship hours, 65 skill assessments, 34 exams… and as the class president puts it, “four very scary and anxiety-driven math tests.”
 
“But here we are,” chuckles Anderson. “We are ready to enter the real world.”
 
Her words resonated throughout the theater and the internet, where family and friends beamed in to join the ceremony. Professionally broadcast by a hired production company, the event was so successful that there are hopes to continue to livestream ceremonies in the future.
 
“It was really well-received because, normally, we have a limited capacity in the theater,” says Doget. “This way, anyone could see it.”
 
The celebration was well-deserved, according to Doget. To hear the director tell it, students had to be extremely flexible during the pandemic, adapt quickly, and still meet rigorous program standards. “They did better than we had even anticipated — We are very, very proud of them.”
 
Perhaps the highlight of the cohorts’ education came in December 2020, when students helped vaccinate the community with the California Health Corps and local clinical sites.
 
“Our students were some of the ones that gave the first COVID shots in the Inland Empire,” recalls Doget, who says students had powerful reactions to volunteering on the frontlines of the pandemic. “One of our students teared up and said … ’This has been such a long road for us, and the road is going to be longer. But this is really history right here.’”
 
Due to their dedication, it’s no surprise that recruiters are now flooding Doget’s inbox with requests to interview and hire Chaffey College’s latest crop of nurses.
 
“Some students already had job opportunities, and many of the others are being recruited right now since they just now are able to sit for boards,” says the pleased director. “They’re going to be hired very, very, very quickly.”
 
According to Jennifer Renteria, Chaffey College alum and nursing associate professor, these new nurses proved themselves long before earning their degrees. In November 2020, she recalls how students donned their N95 masks and headed back to hospitals to care for patients during one of the worst waves of COVID-19.
 
“We didn’t yet have the ability to vaccinate, but the need was great, and the desire to serve was a passion that clearly lives deep within these amazing individuals,” the proud professor told students. “Your dedication was fierce, your perseverance, unwavering, and your courage was unstoppable.”
 
Despite what will likely be remembered as the most difficult semester of nursing school in history, Chaffey College students showed up to every single clinical shift. That’s why, their professor says, these students are prepared for the real world of nursing like no other.
 
 “You did not take no for an answer,” says Renteria. “And you did it with grace and respect.”
 
Similarly, Doget’s pride in students’ accomplishments goes beyond her role as a professor. After all, she’s been a part of the Chaffey family since 1993, when she first graduated with her nursing degree.
 
“I, like many of our other instructors, are Chaffey alumni,” she reflects. “So, we’re extra proud of the Chaffey grads here.”
 
According to Anderson, the Class of 2021 couldn’t have done it without faculty showing them “the Chaffey way.” Now, grads are proud to be carrying on the torch:
 
“Save one life, you’re a hero. Save 100 lives, you’re a nurse,” says Anderson. “Congratulations, class of 2021 — We did it!”


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