UNLV undergraduate student Acacia Herndon is about to graduate this spring alongside the rest of the inaugural class from the accelerated second-degree bachelor in nursing program, a faster paced version of the already intense traditional bachelor’s in nursing track.
But that’s only one part of Herndon’s story. She is also a nurse apprentice, researcher, and the communications director for UNLV’s Student Nurses Association (SNA). Through her extra opportunities, Herndon is setting her sights high as a future nurse leader.
A mother’s inspiration
As a child, Herndon spent time watching her mother, a nurse, and coworkers interact with their patients. “I was more interested in the kind of psychosocial treatments and therapeutic communication that nurses can use to help people get better as opposed to the deep science of medicine,” she said. Moreover, her mom inspired her health professionalism through core values, like a compassionate heart. “She has a stable personality and a lot of strengths that helped raise me,” Herndon said. “I could see how she could really help people that are struggling. She is a good support system for me.”
Even if her mother wasn’t a nurse, Herndon thinks she would have pursued a health care career. “I believe one has nothing if they don't have their health,” Herndon asserted. “I don't literally mean ‘nothing,’ but health is what allows us to pursue our passions and other interests. I want to set people up for success and make their recovery a positive experience.”
Fitting into the right program
When Herndon and her husband moved to Las Vegas, she applied and was accepted into UNLV’s new accelerated nursing program in early 2021. After almost a year as an undergraduate, she’s grateful to have taken the opportunity. “I feel like for a while, I've been waiting to become a nurse, so it's great to actually get into it,” Herndon said. “All of the teachers I've found to be really caring and invested in us doing well.”
What makes the accelerated second-degree program unique is the variety of skills from the students, each coming with a non-nursing education. Herndon, for example, came with a bachelor’s in physiology and minor in developmental psychology.
“I think it's a strength of our cohort we get to share different types of experiences with each other because we've all had different backgrounds,” Herndon said. “In that sense, it's more enriching to have that diversity.”
Herndon has been able to use her psychology background to encourage more self-care among her classmates through SNA communications.
Finding more ways to help
Outside of class, Herndon is among nearly 20 UNLV nursing students working simultaneously as nurse apprentices in local hospitals to help offset staffing shortages.
She knew the opportunity would augment what she’s already learned in school, saying, “I think it's important for us to get as much hands-on experience as possible because there's not going to be as much support when we get out into the fields because there's so much stress already in the hospitals. It's a way to get our feet wet and be more prepared when we start working.”
She began her apprenticeship in late March at Centennial Hills Hospital Medical Center, and she’s enjoyed the role so far, most notably having extra time to talk with patients or go the extra mile to help them.
Not a hypothetical effort
Being in both an accelerated program and apprenticeship didn’t deter Herndon from looking into other ways to keep herself focused, such as searching for potential research projects. She didn’t have a particular topic in mind; she wanted to simply see if there was a project that piqued her curiosity.
“Research is interesting,” Herndon said, “because you are creating something new and providing people with new knowledge to help change practices and change the way things are done.”
She connected with School of Nursing professor Jennifer Vanderlaan in June 2021 to begin work on a study on midwifery independent licensing, specifically the restrictions nurse midwives face in certain states to get their licensure and how this impacts the size of the midwife workforce and access to their services. They began looking into areas such as independent prescribing authority, comparable Medicaid reimbursement among physicians for doing the same procedure, and eligibility to be on a hospital's medical staff.
“All of these things affect how easily a midwife can navigate their practice,” Herndon said. “We found those variables did, in fact, increase accessibility to midwives.”
Herndon said this research project is her biggest accomplishment as a nursing student, not just because of its impact on policymakers, but for personal growth. “It wasn't really something I thought I could be good at,” she admitted. “I struggled with coming up with understanding this whole new field that I didn't really know anything about when I was starting it. I think I impressed myself.”
As a result of their work, both Herndon and Vanderlaan will present their research abstracts at the 2022 Annual Research Meeting for Academy Health in Washington, D.C., in June. Herndon has been nominated for the Best Student Project Award at the conference.
The path to make change
After graduating this semester, Herndon’s goal is to keep working at Centennial Hills Hospital, having already established a connection there as an apprentice. She acknowledges she’s part of a unique cohort of nurses to be graduating this semester, but for her, it’s more about the bigger picture of just having a way to support the present nurses on the frontlines.
“Especially in this time, it's even more stressful for us getting into it. But it's exciting to have more people in the field and to have people that kind of rejuvenate the field and relieve a lot of the stress the current nurses are feeling. I'm excited to have people that want to do good work and to make changes and learn from all of the things that happened during the pandemic.”