On a rainy cold Saturday last May my son graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. As I sat shivering in my complimentary plastic poncho, listening to the commencement speaker doing his best to inspire the faces peering up from under soaked tassels, the thought came to me that we all need a commencement address every five years or so. Someone to tell us we can make the world a better place, that the possibility for greatness exists within us, that we may yet achieve our dreams. Someone to remind us why we chose nursing, and why we work so hard.
So, whether you are a new graduate or graduated 50 years ago, this is my commencement address to you.
Stay alert. Be vital. Sharpen your mind and your skills. Read journals for nurses and on health care in general. But don't limit your knowledge to health-related information. Read political discourse, economic theory, and great literature. At the time of this writing, a book of poems, Slope of the Child Everlasting by Laurie Kutchins, sits on my desk at home. Each evening it pulls me into a deep reflection that informs my practice in a way clinical study alone can't possibly do.
Keep moving. Learn, change, uncover, discover. There's no other profession that allows you to do this like nursing. Whether it's within your facility or as a travel nurse exploring the country, or perhaps going from clinical care to a policy-making position, movement will awaken the anticipation and excitement that you felt in the beginning of your career.
Look beyond your borders—whether they're a shift, a hospital, a specialty, a state, a country. Reach outside of what you know. See yourself as part of something bigger than nursing. At the time of this writing, I'm about to leave for a trip to Uganda and Rwanda to see what it's like to be a nurse in a place very different from home.
Act out. Be willing to anger people. Remember, you are valuable and necessary. Get your facts straight, then speak up loud and often. Make some noise and get some attention. And then be ready to back up your words with actions.
Become nursing's biggest fan. Promote it. Boast about it. It will go a long way in making nursing what it should be—well paid, well understood, and respected. It will draw talented people to the profession. Nursing suffers from gender bias, an important thing to recognize whichever gender you happen to be. It affects who goes into nursing, how your role is allowed to evolve, and how much you get paid. The answer isn't in making the profession good enough for men; it's in making the profession good enough.
Don't let nursing define your whole being. Be a baker, a runner, a book club member, a father, a wife. Whatever it is, be it totally, ferociously, and separate from nursing. As a writer of poetry I am often referred to as a nurse-poet and I always protest. I am not a nurse-poet or a nurse-anything. I am a nurse and a poet. Nursing takes incredible mental and physical energy. Shelter that part of you that is away from nursing and it will energize your presence as a nurse.
So go forth. This Career Guide can be a starting point. It's a practical guide for building and sustaining a career. We've filled it with articles and resources to help you refuel, whether you're just finishing school, motoring happily along, or ready to change lanes.