Entering Chico State’s School of Nursing, Brooke Kojima didn’t quite know where her path would lead—other than she was certain she wanted to be a nurse. Never could she have predicted that, during her final semester, she would play a vital role in protecting her community during a global pandemic.

Kojima is one of 40 fifth-semester nursing students working on the coronavirus frontlines, providing much-needed testing and administering long-awaited vaccinations to the Butte County community. In between her studies and virtual classes, she has been working between four and five hours each week to provide testing at Enloe Behavioral Health.

“I was halfway through the nursing program when the pandemic hit, so luckily I was able to have pre-COVID experience in the hospital,” said Kojima. “Now, we’re in the COVID era, you could say, with masks, face shields, and PPE, and the experience has been very illuminating.”

Sarah Brown Blake, lead faculty for the School of Nursing’s community and public health courses, calls the pandemic “an all-hands-on-deck public health crisis” and is immensely proud her students are meeting the moment.

A nursing student wearing personal protective equipment finishes administering a COVID-19 test.
Nursing students like Paige Barker work four to five hours a week providing COVID-19 testing, while students that administer vaccines work eight-and-a-half-hours a week.

“They know this is a unique experience and that they are playing an important role during a historic public health event,” Blake said. “They are learning about pandemic and disaster planning and implementation while helping to administer vaccines and support staff at testing sites.”

Fifth-semester nursing students are required to fulfill 135 hours of clinical work in a variety of healthcare settings. Blake said that during the pandemic, healthcare workers are overwhelmed, agencies are understaffed, and the need for assistance is monumental—this is where Chico State nursing students come in, providing helping hands while gaining invaluable, real-world experiences.

“In mid-December, faculty and students were called on to support local facilities soon after Butte County received the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine,” Blake said. “And this spring, students are at vaccine clinics and testing sites from Yuba City to Redding, and numerous sites in between.”

Some students are also driving out to harder-to-reach rural areas to provide COVID-19 testing and vaccines to more remote populations who aren’t able to get to a testing site themselves.

A nursing student wearing gloves administers a nasal swab test to someone sitting in a car.
Lead faculty for the School of Nursing’s community and public health courses Sarah Brown Blake said her students’ valuable work is “able to bridge what they learn in the classroom and carry it over to their clinical practice.”

“With careful oversight from faculty and wonderful nurse preceptors, Chico State nursing students can confidently and competently perform testing, administer vaccines, and provide patient information and education,” Blake said. “This allows agencies to expand their efforts to reach and protect more people in a shorter period of time.”

Blake said the School of Nursing’s long-lasting community partnerships with local health departments, hospitals, and community clinics have been both tested and strengthened—in large part because of a string of adversities, like 2017’s Oroville Dam crisis and 2018’s Camp Fire. The COVID-19 support is just the latest way Chico State nursing students are protecting the health of the community—from contact tracing and case investigation to a more active role in testing efforts, education, and outreach in the fall.

Working eight-and-a-half hours per week to administer vaccinations at Enloe Medical Center main campus—including to Chico State faculty and staff—fifth-semester nursing student Natalie Soto said she is proud to take on what she sees as her responsibility as a future healthcare worker.

“Our duty as nurses is to do our part to set the example for what we should do as a society—and that is to stop the spread,” said Soto, who has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

A nursing student prepares the arm of a recipient of a vaccination.
“For the last year, we’ve been waking up to what will be seen as a major historical event,” said nursing student Natalie Soto (right). “Our duty as nurses is to do our part and set the example for what we should do as a society—and that is to stop the spread.”

Ultimately, this experience is helping Soto and her classmates recognize their roles as agents of change in healthcare and society—and a deeply fractured and vulnerable health care system revealed by the pandemic. As a result, she said, they regularly discuss how to solve health inequities related to access and quality of care, connecting the pandemic to other urgent public health issues, like climate change, racism, and violence.

“The vaccine rolling out has exposed a lot of the cracks in the American healthcare system and ways in which we could improve that,” Soto said. “If we look back on this experience and understand the ways things fell through and how we could have improved, I think this will serve as an important learning experience.”

As the students quickly witness the need to strengthen and expand the public health system to achieve health equity in the United States and across the globe, they are gaining experiences to carry with them after graduation and into their careers, Blake said.

“When practical, field-based experiences are meaningful to students, the content sticks, innovative new ideas form, it enriches the discussions we have in the classroom, and it will simply make them better nurses—regardless of where they end up practicing,” Blake said.