Nov. 25, 2023

After a full career as a paramedic, UCalgary Nursing student finds her calling in nursing

Q&A with Term 7 UCalgary Nursing student Jenna Spino
Jenna Spino, Term 7 UCalgary Nursing student

Nursing students are the future of this profession and already impact health care today and tomorrow as passionate voices and advocates for patients.

For National Nursing Students’ Week (NNSW) Nov. 20-26, we are recognizing the work and commitment of some of our undergraduate students at UCalgary Nursing by sharing their stories.

Nursing students on campus

As a mature student, Jenna Spino has already made multiple career shifts, all before starting nursing school. After high school, she held jobs in all industries from construction and banks to serving in local bars and restaurants. But the common thread was working with people. As someone who stays calm under pressure, she was well suited to become a paramedic, which she did for nearly seven years.

“I looked into EMS and that's when I really started to realize this is perfect. I like medicine, I like people, combine the two, and that's how I became an EMT [emergency medical technician] PCP [primary care paramedic].”  

Spino did her EMT studies with the Alberta Health and Safety Training Institute in 2013. She thrived with the adrenaline of the lights and sirens and tackling an ever-changing situation that requires critical thinking and problem-solving. She worked as an EMT for clinics and ambulances in rural and remote settings up north, two hours past Fort McMurray.

I was in a lot of camps. We were the kind of 911 of the camps and we had over 3,000 people we were EMS for. We did heli-evacuations, we worked with paramedic partners and we worked in a clinic. But I was going for two weeks at a time essentially 24 hours a day; 12 hours to work in the clinic, 12 hours we were on call. It got exceptionally busy.” 

Realizing there wasn’t a lot of upward mobility opportunities in that career, Spino once again made the decision to go back to school for nursing. For two and half years, Spino did self-learning at SAIT to upgrade her marks in order to apply to UCalgary Nursing. “I basically had to redo all my grade 12 courses in order to get my GPA up high enough to be considered. I worked full-time and I upgraded, one course at a time.”

Spino remembers the day finding out she got into nursing school as one of the happiest days of her life. “It was the middle of COVID. I got laid off from two jobs, one was the serving job and everything was shut down. I also did a lot of standby work for the Stampede, as a medic for Calgary Flames games and was struggling with how to pay the bills.”

In April next year, Spino will finish nursing school.

“I heard nursing school was a roller coaster but I never understood how much it would be. But I wouldn’t change this experience at all. I’ve proven to myself how resilient I am. I never thought I could do it and now I am almost done it so that in itself has been rewarding.”

Currently, she’s doing her clinical placement at Unit 66 in internal medicine cardiology at South Health Campus. She continues to hold her EMT license and works casually while going to school full time. Here are some additional questions we asked Spino about her nursing education experience.

nursing students in scrubs in clinical

Jenna Spino in Term 4

Why did you decide to make the switch into nursing? 
“I remember I just wasn't happy in my current position with EMS and I was thinking about going back to school and there was a few options, whether it was my ACP [advanced care paramedics] or maybe RT [respiratory therapy] or nursing. With me, nursing just seemed like a really far stretch because I didn't have the grades in high school. The reason first and foremost I got into EMS is because I am a very big empath. I take a lot of people's energy and as caring and compassionate as I am, I wanted to pick them up and drop them off. Show my care and my support, do what I needed to do but drop them off and then not think about it because I didn't want that emotional tie. But my views have changed on that.”

How does EMT work compare to nursing and what do you feel you’re bringing into nursing from that experience?
There's so much more that I can do as a nurse, than I could as an EMT. Not only that, there's so much more room for movement. With paramedics, you go up to ACP and then supervising but that is it. I understand that pre-hospital side of things. That is really beneficial to how I interact even when I take report from medics as well. And now I understand how it is in the hospital setting. They work very well together and I'm glad that I have that knowledge prior because it's made it an easier transition."

Any challenges with returning back to school and making this shift now?
“I have never felt so tired. I don't have that same energy as I did as in my 20s. It's been tough trying to make my daily livelihood work. I have two stepchildren and a family and it has been a lot tougher going back to school. Nursing requires a lot of energy. But I respect education so much more now at my age than I did as a young adult.”

Why UCalgary?
“I live out of town at the moment - 20 minutes east of Airdrie. It was a toss-up between MRU and U of C. I applied for both, and U of C was the most convenient for me. I have family close to the school so staying with them is kind of nice. My sister got her degree in mathematics at U of C too and always talked about how great the campus was and I think I was just familiar with U of C.” 

What was that first year like for you?
“With COVID, because I had just done two and half years of upgrading online, I was used to online school. I knew how to mitigate my time. It was easy for me to pour myself into it first year plus there was nothing else to do. It was the transition going back into the actual classroom setting that scared the heck out of me. It was a little nerve-wracking at first but I got acclimated very quick.”

Anything that surprised you about nursing school?
“The papers! I didn't realize how many papers and how much research that we had to do but it has become like second nature now.” 

Any stand-out memorable moments from the last two years?
“First of all, the support of my fiancé. I don't know how long would have gotten through without his support, because he has seen me at my lowest and highest and nursing school has been an emotional roller coaster, hands down.

“Number two, the people in my nursing cohort. I have kind of like my core group. Because we're all going through this same thing, we can lean on each other and support each other."

"You have to have a sense of humour in this job because you see a lot of dark things, or you hear a lot of dark things, you read a lot of dark things and it can really take a toll on your mental health. I find getting a really good core group of friends to study and just to banter with is so great.” 

What area of nursing do you want to get into?
“I've always loved critical care hence why pre-hospital was such a good thing for me. I would love to do ICU, CCU, CVICU, emergency. I’ve always been somebody who jumps in head first. I love patient care. I love making people feel good on their worst days and I love being there for people. I strive to make a difference in people's lives when they're just having a really rough go.”

Any advice for incoming new nursing students?
“Take care of your mental health, your physical health and don’t beat yourself up if you get a poor grade on a test. It doesn’t define who you are. Make those mistakes, learn from those mistakes. You are a student - it’s ok to fail sometimes and to ask questions and stay engaged. Take advantage of the resources that U of C offers, even to talk to somebody, if you're feeling really low.”