The ultimate real-world lesson: Nursing students administer COVID-19 vaccines

UC Davis nursing students put classroom skills into community practice during pandemic


When 46 nursing students began their education at UC Davis Health last summer, they embarked upon a rigorous 18-month journey at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Most coursework was virtual, except for small-group skills-building and simulation activities.

Nursing student Judy Njuguna-Hamilton administers COVID-19 vaccine for UC Davis Health patients.
Nursing student Judy Njuguna-Hamilton administers COVID-19 vaccine for UC Davis Health patients.

Though the experience wasn’t exactly as they envisioned, the timing brought unprecedented opportunities for these students in the Master’s Entry Program in Nursing (MEPN) at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

“Just three months into the pandemic, we partnered with the UC Davis Health Ambulatory Care team to allow students to participate in COVID-19 testing,” said MEPN Program Director Shana Ruggenberg. “It helped our then second-year students gain essential knowledge and skills about pandemic-related issues.”

It also provided some of the clinical experience hours required for graduation when skilled nursing facilities closed their doors to learners during the pandemic. Now, six months later, first-year students are stepping up to administer COVID-19 vaccines.

“Giving SARS-CoV-2 vaccines is a challenging and exciting opportunity that is unique to this year. Their participation not only allows them to become comfortable with Intramuscular Injections, but it also assists the clinic in getting more patients vaccinated,” said Kimberly Mason, a UC Davis Health nurse who serves as a clinical instructor for the School of Nursing. “The environment is fast-paced and large quantity, which truly demonstrates how quickly our students learn and adapt to new environments.”

As a clinical instructor, Mason’s job is to work side-by-side with students as they practice essential elements of nursing — psychomotor skills, assessment, communication and problem-solving. She leads groups of eight students each Friday at the UC Davis Health vaccine clinic at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Sacramento.

“When my first patient sat down and rolled up their sleeve, I was taken aback by the total trust. At that moment I became the nurse and he was my patient,” recalled MEPN student Judy Njuguna-Hamilton. “He was the first of many that day. As they shared bits and pieces of their lives it made me realize that being the nurse is much more than that needle in my hand. It’s about seeing the person sitting in that chair.”

Classmate Chau Le said it felt different from classroom simulations because of the diversity among those receiving the vaccine.

“Applying motivational interviewing skills and practicing therapeutic communication in our simulations have helped me prepare for the experience of real-life patient interactions,” Le said. “The School of Nursing is preparing me to become an independent thinker and a future nurse leader who can respond effectively to changes.”

First-year School of Nursing students get hands-on experience with real patients and guidance from clinical instructor Kimberly Mason, center.

Every member of the Class of 2021 will have the opportunity to give shots and interact with real people. Participating in the vaccine effort helps ensure they meet the minimum of 810 hours of clinical time needed before they graduate in December. Instructors also recognize an even greater benefit.

“This past year has shown how resilient these future nurses are. Facilitating and watching our nursing students in our community working to fight a war against this difficult virus while demonstrating compassion, promotes pride to be affiliated with the University of California,” Mason said.

“I hope that they’ll become nurses who understand the diversity of opinion and how to navigate in a world where there will always be questions and a need to question science,” Ruggenberg added. “I hope it drives home the points we try to make about the importance of evidence in nursing practice, and always the need for seeing the patient with empathy and compassion.”