Like many new UNLV nursing students, Alyssa Macleod’s first semester has been anything but ordinary due to the coronavirus outbreak. But unlike most of those other students, her first semester almost didn’t happen. Adjusting to remote learning was only half the battle for her. The other half was trying to enter the United States.
Macleod is from Nova Scotia, Canada, and border restrictions prevented her from traveling to Las Vegas until very recently.
It took the help of UNLV faculty (and an especially important piece of paper), to get her across the border.
A Complicated Process
First-year UNLV bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) students started May 11 with seven straight weeks of virtual lecture classes to build up their clinical competency. Then they switched to eight weeks of simulation and clinical courses, which have been tailored to limit in-person exposure amid the pandemic. Normally, the courses are intertwined for a more balanced approach, but COVID-19 forced the School of Nursing to rearrange schedules.
Macleod was able to handle this adjustment by keeping up with her lecture courses from her home in Nova Scotia, but the whole time she was trying to get to Nevada. She had to be back in-person for the clinical simulations to avoid potential disruptions with her studies. In addition, she already had a life in Las Vegas waiting for her, including her boyfriend and an apartment she still had to pay for. “I’m still paying rent, I’m still paying [utility] bills,” she said back in May. “All my stuff is there. I have to pay rent, or I get evicted and be on the street.”
Among her belongings in her apartment were her red scrubs, waiting to be worn.
The process for Macleod to leave Canada was complicated. Every step forward resulted in another obstacle. Initially, she called multiple airlines and the Canada Border Services (CBSA) in Montreal for help to get over the border. “They said even though I’m a student, that’s not essential travel.”
She still could travel within her province but could not go through a new one. She lived in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which has an airport, but it didn’t allow any flights. The next nearest airport was in Halifax, Nova Scotia — a five-hour drive.
She booked multiple flights, but each time they were canceled. She finally found a flight that would get her to Las Vegas by mid-June. There was no direct path. American Airlines had her flying from Halifax to two other U.S. cities before arriving in Nevada. A week before her flight, she got the message she hoped not to hear again. “They said my flight from Halifax to Philadelphia was canceled because of COVID-19.”
The airline refunded her ticket, and she switched to Air Canada. She booked a flight from Halifax to Toronto and then flew from Toronto to Dallas before eventually getting into Las Vegas the night of June 17.
Words of Importance
Perhaps the most critical moment of Macleod’s journey came down to being questioned by border agents, something she was used to under less stressful circumstances. “They asked me a whole bunch of questions, more than I normally get asked. They weren’t sure my travel was essential.”
But it was a single piece of paper, addressed to no specific person, that played a decisive role. The letter, written by professor Angela Silvestri-Elmore, UNLV nursing’s BSN program director. In the letter, Silvestri-Elmore advocated for Macleod as a nursing student, and that it was necessary for her to be in the U.S. for her education.
Macleod had asked Silvestri-Elmore to write the letter because she knew the border wouldn’t open until July 31 at the earliest, and that border agents would not consider her travel essential if it wasn’t medical-related. Macleod said this letter made all the difference. “There was no way they would have let me through (without the letter). They read it three or four times before they said OK.”
Helping a student cross the border was a new experience for Silvestri-Elmore. She didn’t think such a letter actually would be required but wrote it just in case. She also gave Macleod her cell phone number if anyone needed to clarify why Macleod needed to cross the border.
“I remember at the contract signing session; she was explaining to me that she had to go back to Canada, and she wasn't sure if she was going to be able to get certain requirements done in order to come into the program,” Silvestri-Elmore said.
Silvestri-Elmore said while she considered the possibility of having Macleod start during a different semester, that was not the preferred option. “We want to keep the pipeline of nurses completely open. It doesn't matter if we're talking about one student or we're talking about an entire class of 72 students, my goal is to do everything that I can to make sure that all of our students are successful. We keep them moving because we will need them.”
Grateful to Be Here
Macleod flew 3,748 miles on three different airlines across multiple time zones to keep her nursing semester alive. She was supposed to be in Las Vegas in early May. She made it a little over a week before clinicals began on June 29.
Macleod always knew she wanted to be in health care. She has a mild case of cerebral palsy and between multiple surgeries and hospital stays, she interacted with nurses throughout her life. She was inspired by them, but originally wanted to be a doctor. But after spending time in medical school in Anguilla, she realized she wanted something different. She returned to the U.S. and researched several nursing schools before choosing UNLV for its affordability and shorter program. Las Vegas also kept her closer to her boyfriend.
The circumstances surrounding COVID-19 have not dissuaded her from nursing, but she admits she underestimated the challenges of learning remotely. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy being an international student and having to cross the border, but I didn’t expect COVID-19 to be as much of a problem as it is.”
Silvestri-Elmore added how proud she was of Macleod for staying proactive through all the uncertainty. “I was really impressed with how she handled the situation, and how she was just so on top of it. And that made a difference, I think, in ensuring that she didn't miss anything that's really important.”
Macleod said she’s grateful for UNLV Nursing helping her, especially Silvestri-Elmore. “God bless her because without her I don’t think I would be here right now. Writing that letter, that is what saved me, what got me through the border.”