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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Finding Your Niche

Today I am going out to UMass Amherst to address the second bachelor students. I went and spoke to the undergrad nursing class in January and it was a huge success. What am I going to talk about? I'm going to talk about figuring out what kind of nurse you are, and creating a role for yourself in the world that fits that person.

My involvement in coming to speak to the school of nursing is the stuff of fairy tales for me. I was well known in the School of Nursing, and mostly well liked. However, since I was not a traditional nursing student, not many of my professors expected I would become a nurse.  In fact, when I graduated, they didn't read off a hospital after my name, which is what typically happens.
 "J. Jones, Cooley Dickinson, Northampton, Ma.  A. Morrison, Children's Hospital, Boston."

For me they read, "M.Whitaker... (loooong pause) will be... will be performing at Improv Asylum in Boston," because I had just made the NXT cast and that's what I wrote on my graduation information sheet.

So when they invited me back to speak to young impressionable students... that amazed me. It still amazes me.  I always fantasized I would have a chance to tell my story to people it might matter to. And now I am being given that chance.

Nursing school was difficult. Not because I wasn't great at memorization, cramming, or writing 20 page papers the night before they were due. Boston Latin School taught me all that a long time ago.

No, nursing was difficult because I was trapped between two worlds. Comedy and Nursing. Theater and Medicine. Art and Pragmatism. Doing both made sense to me, but it made little sense to many of my professors.

In fact, I had one clinical instructor who, on a weekly basis would take me aside and ask if I had quit Mission:IMPROVable yet. I hadn't. I had been in the group for four years before she met me, I explained. I planned on doing improv professionally later on, I told her. And so long as it didn't effect my grades, it was really none of her business. Even as I pulled in a steady line of "A"s on my papers, tests and care plans these little side bars continued because "comedy just isn't an appropriate hobby for a nurse."

This is what I looked like sophomore year of Nursing School.
I wouldn't have placed bets on me getting an RN either.

Meanwhile, I was fighting some personal battles. My father had passed away at the beginning of sophomore year and my mother was/ is unable to work. I was newly financially responsible but couldn't qualify for aid because they assuming my mom could throw some of Dad's pension my way, which she couldn't actually afford to do. So I had taken out a loan and was working as hard as I could without quitting improv. Often I was coming to school not having slept at all because I had to work overnight shifts to make money.

One morning, my white sneakers split in half after being on my feet all night. The next morning I pulled on my green high tops and went to my clinical in West Springfield where I was shadowing a school nurse at a local high school. We had been working together for a few weeks and she had already commented that I could relax the school uniform so I went in and everything was fine. The next week I still hadn't replaced the shoes because I needed to wait for my next paycheck. Unfortunately, this was the day my UMass clinical instructor decided to visit me at the clinical site. She took me into the back room, where we let girls who say they have cramps lie down when they want to skip gym.

I stared a a poster on the wall of "100 Things To Do Instead of Smoking," and listened as my instructor told me that I was the reason people don't take nurses seriously. I thought about all the nurses in the world wearing teddy bear scrub tops and tried not to open my mouth. She told me the next time I came in I better have white shoes. I told her the truth. That I couldn't afford them right now.

"Don't you have parents?" she asked.
"I have one," I answered, daring her to go further. Which she did.

A verbal fight ensued. In the end, I won. But not before some terrible things were said on both sides. She insulted my family. I threatened to take it to the Dean. I'm amazed she passed me that semester. But she did. Green high tops, sassy back-talk and all.

Those stories are just two examples. There were a million reasons I hated nursing. I wanted to quit, but I have never been a quitter. I have never walked away from something just because it's hard.  I was good at the technical skills, and I got good grades on every care plan. The only thing that was hard, it seemed, was being accepted by other nurses. I just didn't fit in. Maybe it was enough, I thought, just to know I could have gone into nursing. 

The person who finally got through to me was Jennifer Foster. She taught Culture and Anthropology. She had traveled the whole world. She wore funky clothes.  When I mentioned to her that I was probably leaving the school of nursing she listened carefully and then said simply, "don't."  I'm paraphrasing here but she told me, "you don't hate nursing. You hate the culture of nursing school. When you leave here you choose what you want to do, and the people you will do it with. You will find your niche. The nursing world needs more nurses who are like you. Because only you will fill that niche. Don't forget that."

I didn't forget that.

When I spoke to the students last winter I told them that one of the most important things they could do for themselves was remember that they are free to NOT take advice. They do not have to listen to people who tell them to quit something they love. By the same token, they also do not have to listen to me.

 Everyone on my path was trying to do something good for me. The woman who hated comedy wanted me to be a successful (and published) psych nurse. She was giving me advice from that lens. The woman who hated my shoes wanted me to be taken seriously, and she was worried I wouldn't be. It made her say some very mean things, but it had originated from a helpful place. But I was free to politely disagree with them. As soon as you figure out that you are free to NOT take advice, life gets a lot easier. It really frees you up to set goals and then systematically pursue them. Or you know, float through life on whimsy like I do, accidentally landing both my dream jobs in one year. Whatever works for you.

I received a lot of emails afterwards thanking me. A lot of students said they were glad someone had the courage to say the things I said. Some of them said they also had been thinking about quitting because they don't feel like they fit the "nursing mold."  They felt better now. I felt better too. Telling all the stories about nursing school helped me let go of my anger.

So, I found my Niche. Obviously. But the thing about Niches is that, sometimes they change too. If they didn't I'd still be teaching theater at a Montessori. That was perfect for a while, but then it wasn't anymore.  I'm going to add that to my speech today.  You have to continue to be aware of yourself, reevaluate your goals and your dreams and then keep carving away at your place in the world. Because for a room full of intelligent, dedicated, passionate people there's absolutely no excuse not to do what you love.


Matt said...


Awesome. If I could give you a hug over the Internet, I'd do it.

pdoherty175 said...

The last two sentences in this post are amazing <3