Above her surgical mask, Rylee Williamson’s eyes filled with emotion and hope when describing what it’s like to be on the front lines of Western Carolina University’s regional COVID-19 vaccination clinic.
“It means a lot to me to be a part of this,” said Williamson, who’s in her first year of Southwestern Community College’s Nursing program, during a short break between giving injections to community members on March 15. “It’s very rewarding, especially in this time, getting to vaccinate all these individuals. We’re going to see a lot of progression out of this, and we’re going to finally get back to normal.”
A Clyde resident, Williamson is one of more than two dozen SCC students who’ve been administering vaccines on a volunteer basis at area clinics in recent weeks.
The students assist with more than injections at WCU’s clinic. They also monitor the holding area, observe vaccinated individuals for adverse reaction, treat and assess individuals as well as working in the ‘drawing area’ – where they draw vaccines up into syringes.
Cortnee Lingerfelt, Director of WCU’s regional COVID-19 vaccine clinic, estimates SCC students have delivered approximately 300 shots each Monday since the clinic opened.
“We’ve been blessed and fortunate to have a partnership with SCC,” Lingerfelt said. “Wendy Buchanan (SCC Nursing Program coordinator) and Kimi Walker (SCC instructor) have been wonderful to commit to Mondays for us, so they’ve been sending four or five students at a time – with a faculty member. The impact has been tremendous. They run half the clinic one day a week.”
“They’re incredibly professional, incredibly competent and friendly,” Lingerfelt added. “They are going to make fantastic nurses, so we’re glad to have their skills and their partnership here.”
Gaining confidence and hands-on skills have always been the goal for SCC’s Health Sciences students when they participate in clinical training.
This year’s Nursing students are seizing the opportunity to do something historic.
“This experience allows me to give back to my community,” said Brittany Gardner, a first-year student from Cullowhee. “It makes me feel grateful that people trust me as a student giving the vaccine. I think this experience will make me a better nurse overall. Not every Nursing student goes through this, and it teaches you to just roll with the punches and go with it. It has given us the ability to give back.”
Jasmine McConnell, a first-year student from Sylva, added: “It’s huge; it’s such a big thing. The COVID vaccines are just coming out, and we’re able to be a part of that. Going forward in my career, I can say I was part of this.”
Stations at WCU’s clinic are separated by curtains for privacy. Each SCC student gets paired with a volunteer, who fills out the administrative paperwork for individuals who receive injections.
Inside their stations, the students ask individuals how they’re feeling and answer any questions before administering the inoculations.
SCC instructors wait just outside the curtains in case questions arise.
“It was very nerve wracking at first just because in a clinical setting, we usually have our instructor watching us,” said Hailey Jenkins, a first-year Nursing student from Cullowhee. “And here, we each have our own little booth, and we’re doing our thing. It definitely gives me a good bit of confidence. It gets me out of my comfort zone and helps me realize I can do this.”
Williamson and Gardner are in the RIBN (Regionally Increasing Baccalaureate Nurses) program, another partnership with WCU. Through RIBN, students complete their first three years of coursework at SCC before completing the final year of their bachelor’s degree at WCU.
In addition to WCU’s clinic, SCC Nursing students have been volunteering for COVID-19 vaccination clinics at the Haywood County Health Department and Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.
Their efforts have made their instructors and program coordinator Buchanan proud.
“They are making a difference in the world, and their gaining some once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Buchanan said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for them, and we’re glad they’re taking advantage of it. I cannot wait to see what they’ll accomplish in their careers after they graduate from SCC.”