Developing a passion for nursing on the Hill led alumna to Johns Hopkins
From an early age, Ziyuan (Sherry) Shi ’21 knew that she wanted to enter the healthcare field. What started as an initial interest in biology has since transformed into a passion for helping others and providing patients with “the most powerful support” through nursing. With encouragement from her friends, mentors, and St. Olaf College’s Piper Center for Vocation and Career, Shi is now earning her master’s degree in nursing at Johns Hopkins University.
Shi originally heard about the Johns Hopkins Nursing Program, which is consistently ranked as one of the best in the country, from St. Olaf Professor of Biology and Chair of Health Professions Committee Kevin Crisp. One of the reasons the program appealed to Shi, who majored in biology and psychology with a concentration in neuroscience, is because it accepts students who did not study nursing as undergraduates.
“The program gives people a second chance to get into the nursing field. There are people from so many different places and backgrounds, so it’s a really cool experience because it’s a really good community and everyone has the same dream to be a nurse,” she says. “It’s the beginning of your career. You have so many connections to the nursing field after you finish the program.”
Because of the influence of some stereotypes in her home country, China, where most people think doctors are more important than nurses, Shi had not considered entering the nursing field. However, after coming to the United States for her undergraduate degree, her perspective on nursing changed, and she truly saw the importance of the profession. Shi hopes to bring this credibility and respect for nursing back to China in order to conquer old stereotypes and redefine the significance of nurses, letting more people recognize the important role nurses play in the healthcare field.
“I like caring for people and using my knowledge to help people with my own hands, so I never regret going into this field because it’s perfect for me,” she says.
Opportunities on the Hill
During her time at St. Olaf, Shi was very involved in pre-health opportunities and believes that these experiences helped her explore different career interests. One of these programs was Pathways to Healthcare, which gives pre-health students the opportunity to develop skills in an active healthcare environment, receive mentoring from healthcare professionals, and obtain shadowing experiences. Shi also participated in the Innovation Partners Program, where she developed a business plan for an early-stage medical start-up company in Minnesota.
“I’m really grateful to St. Olaf for providing me with a lot of opportunities to figure out my interest, boost my resume, and make more connections,” Shi says.
While Shi herself was not a nursing major, St. Olaf has a strong Nursing Program dedicated to preparing professional nurses. The curriculum meets educational requirements for professional licensure and certification in all U.S. states, as well as provides students with opportunities to learn about how to give high-quality, safe, patient-centered care across their lifespans within the standards of professional nursing practices.
In 2019 the St. Olaf Nursing Department moved into a new 5,500 square foot facility that features two simulation labs, a simulation control room, a multi-bed skills lab, and classrooms and debriefing rooms. The space is designed to mirror the structure and feel of an actual hospital environment. Each of the simulation rooms contains a bed and the complete range of the technology seen in any hospital, including heart-rate monitors and oxygen concentrators. The new space improves inter-department collaboration and supports technology-driven curriculum at St. Olaf.
Building connections with patients
One of the aspects of nursing that Shi loves the most is the ability to build strong connections with patients, even more so than doctors. Because nurses often work 12-hour shifts with four to five patients, they develop deep expertise and knowledge of each individual’s condition. “Nursing is a bridge between patients, the doctor, and other healthcare professionals. We know our patients from the beginning, and we take care of them,” Shi says.
As someone who used to be a patient herself, Shi has firsthand experience with the positive impact that nurses make on people’s lives, along with the importance of basic physical care. During her time on the Hill, Shi was admitted to the emergency room. Being an international student, Shi did not have family members close by and felt lonely. When she started having a panic attack, it was the nurse on duty who distracted and comforted her, saying “Everything will be fine. We’re here for you.”
“It’s a small sentence, but it gave me a really powerful comfort at the moment. When our patients are suffering, our smallest gestures can actually make a huge difference, so that’s what I think makes this job meaningful, especially during the COVID pandemic,” Shi says. “There’s a big shortage of nurses. It’s a really tiring job, but this job is critical in the medical field.”
Shi believes that what makes nursing so important is the ability to improve people’s health. While there are difficult components of the position, she says that “this job makes my life significant” because she is changing people’s lives every day. “Working with patients is a really pleasurable thing. All of my patients are really kind to me, and they give us a lot of encouragement,” she says. “It’s a reciprocal relationship. We are here to help; patients are suffering, and we are trying our best to help them. Their life getting a little bit better is the best achievement for us, and that makes me happy.”
A career that provides powerful perspective
Part of this reciprocal relationship is that nurses are constantly learning from their patients. While working with a patient with sickle cell anemia — a painful red blood cell disorder, where cells are contorted into a sickle shape and die quickly — Shi was astonished to learn that this patient was facing excruciating pain every day but still managed to be a positive and optimistic person.
“Patients themselves know better than other people about their diseases. They can give you a lot of information and knowledge. She told me she was dealing with this pain since she was really young and has no choice but to deal with it every day. However, she’s so thankful for everything, and she gave me a lot of encouragement,” Shi says. “You will meet a lot of interesting people in this career, and they can totally change your mind and perspective. This is a chance to build connections and hear different people’s stories and know more about the world. This is also one of the things that pushed me towards pursuing nursing.”
While Shi’s path to a nursing career may have been unconventional in the sense that she did not realize it was a major she wanted to pursue as an undergraduate, she is grateful for the journey she has been on and encourages current undergraduate students to take advantage of all of St. Olaf’s resources, especially the Piper Center.
“Utilize the Piper Center. This is one of the departments that I’m most grateful for. They can really help you a lot and provide a lot of meaningful internships and things we can explore. Just don’t be afraid to try anything out. Only if you try the field will you know if you like it or not. As undergraduate students, we have a lot of time to change our careers,” she says. “This is my second chance in my life. It’s a totally different life experience. Just make sure you’re doing something you like and not sticking with something because you’re too afraid to try something new. You’re going to regret it for your whole life. Rather than regret it later, find out what you like right now.”