Andy Paniaqua had no healthcare experience when he started the vocational nursing program at American Career College-Los Angeles.
“When I came in I didn't know what RBC (red blood cells) was," he said. "I didn't know what anything was.”
A former English major, Paniaqua dropped out of college after deciding he didn't want to waste time and money studying a subject he wasn't interested in. He went on to work odd jobs for a few years, before deciding he needed to get serious about his future. After exploring his options, Paniaqua decided he wanted to become a nurse.
What he didn’t know was how hard it would be. Overwhelmed at first by the learning curve, Paniaqua slowly started gaining knowledge and confidence through his schooling. Before he realized it, he completed the Vocational Nursing program and was preparing to graduate.
“The first term was the hardest for me, I think, because I had no idea about anything, but by Term 2, I was like, 'OK, I'm getting it.'
"Then by Term 3 — my Term 3 instructor Miss Ina, she's very intense but she's really, really smart — so after Term 3 I was like, 'Dang, I know a lot.'
"Then I got into Term 4 and I'm like, 'This is not so bad.' Then I took the exit exam and it was like, 'Well, I got it.' So, I came from knowing zero to I think I know a decent amount,” he said.
After going to the clinical locations, that's when I was like 'I enjoy this a lot,' because there are people here who need help. It's kind of different when we're doing clinical rotations because you have time to stay with the people and you can actually see how much you help them out, impact them, like this is something that's helping the community and helping certain individuals — and that's rewarding. I've told some of my friends (I’m a nurse) and they're like "I've had this cough for a few weeks." Now I can ask them certain questions and kind of figure out what's going on, so the knowledge is very helpful.
It was definitely challenging not knowing anything because it's so complex. There's just so much to know about everything, so many different systems, so many different things that sound like they could be alike but you need to know the differences. Once you get into it, you can differentiate.
I almost quit in the first term. But I would tell myself, 'You can do it. You're smart. You're smart enough to do it. It's just a lot to take in.' I was pretty close to quitting. I was just like, 'I can't do this. It's too much,' but my support system — they were there and telling me, "Just do it. You got it. You'll be fine. You're just stressing out." I was definitely stressed out.
The first time I was freaking out in class, my classmate Jessica, she was always there calming me down. I had her at all my clinical sites too. She was a good friend and basically, everyone in my class was really nice to me, so they were helpful. A few of them could tell that I was freaking out at certain points and they would help calm me down.
Take as many clinical assignments as you can, because that's real experience you get before you go to work. Everybody says when you're on the floor it's so much different than going to school, so if you're getting that practice then, once you're on the floor you'll at least know how to do more things. Every clinical site I went to I ended up making friends. In my second term, on the last day as we were leaving — and I'm not so great with goodbyes — but as I was walking out, I saw this person that I interacted with a lot. They saw me leaving and they're Spanish-speaking only and they were telling me, "Oh, it's your last day" and I was like "Yeah. it is." Then she started crying and gave me a hug and said 'We'll miss you a lot.'
I don't plan on stopping now — especially from what I've heard from all the instructors. Everyone tells me, "Don't stop because you already have done the hard part." Becoming an LVN is the hardest part and now you have all the base knowledge. RN is the same thing but just throwing on a little more stuff. So if I could do this without knowing anything, I can do the RN. Everybody has their troubles in life and I mean there were people in my class where even I was like "Wow, I can't believe you're going through that," but just keep going. It's rough, but you'll finish eventually and it's better when you do. It's cheesy but don't give up on yourself. It's a very overused line but really, just don't quit — because I almost did and I'm glad I didn't.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
ACC cannot guarantee employment. Programs vary by campus. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.
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