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By Debby Wadsworth, Freelance Writer
What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question you probably been asked at least once, maybe by a teacher, counselor, or parent. Some kids will answer with a blank stare or “I don’t’ know” or a definite reply like “I will be an astronaut.” Did they become one?
A similar question usually comes up at some point in adulthood in the form of “Am I on the right course?” It happens because our interests change as we age, gain wisdom and experience. On average, a person will change careers seven times, with 12 jobs in their working lifetime (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Are you questioning your course? Charles F. Kettering once said, “Keep on going, and the chances are that you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it.” His statement aligns with the path of Niki Barnes, a nursing student at Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, Arizona State University (ASU). She knows all about try, try, try, again.
Niki Barnes grew up in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, spending her time seeing doctors. “As a child, I spent a lot of time medically going to clinics and hospitals,” Barnes said. She remembers, “I liked how nurses made you feel.” She drew from those experiences and feeling when thinking about what she wanted to do after graduation. Barnes decided to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). “I wanted to give it a try,” Barnes said. She earned her CNA license and went into the health care field after graduation.
Barnes worked as a CNA at a senior care facility in Chatfield, Minnesota. “I worked in a nursing home for a little over two years as a CNA,” Barnes said. She learned from the experience, “I really liked helping people.” But, despite enjoying the job, Barnes knew it wasn’t where she wanted to be. Her love of animals was also calling. She tried to find a way to help both animals and people. Barnes thought she had found it in a Veterinary Technician (Vet Tech) program.
“I left being a CNA to go to vet tech school because I thought I could combine two things I love – animals and helping people,” Barnes explained. “I figured I could help animals and comfort their owners at the same time.” Barnes was excited about all the opportunities, but alas, she found it was more than expected. “I could not handle it, watching animals die,” Barnes said. Disappointed, she thought about what interested her. Barnes remembered her interest in teaching from when she was a young age child and decided to pursue it.
Barnes earned an Associated of Arts from Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Shortly after, she started a teaching program at Bemidji State. While in the program, Barnes heard the local ambulance garage was offering an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) class. Her inner voice to help people in health care was calling as before. “I think that would be fun, and it would be a way to help people once again,” Barnes said. She took the evening EMT class, gained her certification, and started volunteering as an EMT with the local ambulance service in Chatfield, Minnesota. The decision brought back some of the excitement and purpose she had lost. “You can make a difference in someone’s life like doing CPR, and bringing them back to life,” according to Barnes.
In 2007 Barnes moved to Arizona at the request of her mother, who had moved there for a job. “I moved here (Phoenix area) from Minnesota when my mom said, “Will you come down here too.” After relocation, Barnes struggled with her inability to support herself financially. “When I got to Arizona, I had a hard time finding a job as an EMT,” Barnes said. Plus, she learned EMTs in Arizona only drive an ambulance. “I didn’t want to just drive an ambulance,” Barnes said. “I wanted to help people.”
Eventually, Barnes landed a job as an EMT with First Responder. “I got a job with First Responder and worked at arenas, baseball, basketball, concerts,” according to Barnes. She loved the warm fuzzy feeling she felt from working with people, but “The pay and opportunities for advancement weren’t there,” Barnes explained. But, there was hope because she was on the path to becoming a teacher. Barnes’s hope was broken when she was told by Bemidji State that continuing the teaching program was not possible. Students in the program had to preferably reside in close proximity to the school, or at least in Minnesota. Living in Arizona did not meet the requirements. Understandably upset, she tried to figure out what to do next. Then she found out about an opportunity with group homes in accounting.
Her job was to manage the money and purchase process for residents with things that they needed. She enjoyed helping people once again, both residents and coworkers, stepped in wherever she could, and worked extra shifts as a staff member for outside events like movies and going to the zoo. During her time there, a coworker endured a car accident that left her with neck pain. Barnes wanted to help and started massaging her coworkers’ neck to help alleviate the pain. Helping her coworker along with administering massages gave her that warm and fuzzy feeling she loved. Everything was going great until she was hit by an unanticipated layoff. Remembering how she felt when helping her coworker, Barnes decided to pursue a career in massage therapy.
“I went to school as a massage therapist,” Barnes said. It gave her the chance to help people, however, it would not pay the bills. She learned that scheduled for eight hours did not translate into paid eight hours. In the profession, massage therapists are only paid for the actual hours they give massages. In times like the summer months, “I could go all day without a massage,” Barnes said. “You couldn’t make a living at it.” Barnes decided it was time to find something else more lucrative.
Barnes heard over the radio an advertisement for temporary employees at Amazon. “It offered better than average pay, which was very important to me at the time,” Barnes said. She applied and started as a temporary employee. “I got a job at Amazon in outbound and doing the packing,” Barnes said. Over the next year or so, Barnes went back and forth between working for Amazon and Walmart while taking a few classes.
The desire to help people pulled at her again, and she felt it was time to return to health care. “Doing something medical was always in the back of my mind,” Barnes said. She contemplated going back to being a CNA, but being a CNA was not enough. “As a CNA, you only change people,” according to Barnes. “As a nurse, you hold people’s lives in your hand.” Barnes decided her next step would be attending nursing school but was concerned about paying for it.
While at Amazon as a temporary worker, she saw a sign that said, “Career Choices,” and announced the company would reimburse employees for tuition. Barnes became overly excited because she saw it as a way to pay for nursing school. However, to be eligible, she had to become a “Blue Tagger”, an employee. Employees become eligible for tuition reimbursement after being with the company for one year. “I converted to a blue tagger to get help paying for my nursing school,” Barnes said.
After transitioning her status to employee Barnes applied. She was and was accepted by Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation at ASU. Barnes started the nursing program on weekends in January of 2019 while still working full-time at Amazon. “I finally found the place where I was supposed to be,” Barnes said. “You are helping people get through the most difficult time in their life, and you know you made a difference,” Her warm fuzzy feeling was back!
Barnes had been in nursing school for over a year when she left for Spring break in April. She was looking forward to the break. But everything was turned upside down when Covid-19 hit. Spring break was extended, the return to campus delayed, clinicals canceled, and classes moved online. For Barnes, the pandemic became a source of frustration, not because of nursing school changes, but the environment at work. Amazon became incredibly stressful. “I get stressed at work because you do not social distance,” according to Barnes. “I am vigilant about washing my hands and wearing a mask.”
In response to the pandemic, Barnes took an additional class to gain her Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) before graduating from nursing school with a Bachelor of Science Nursing (BSN) degree. Barnes did it because by getting her LPN, she would be able to get out in the workforce sooner and help Covid-19 patients. The decision closes the gap between graduation and licensure for new nurses, which is typically a few months.
Despite the pandemic creating chaos, Barnes said a few positive things have come from it. “It has put in the forefront of people’s minds how much you sacrifice as a nurse, the conditions, hours, and putting your life on the line to save theirs,” Barnes said. As a result, “I think nursing will become an even more respectable occupation.”
Barnes, now an LPN, EMT, CNA, CMT has traveled a long way. “Everything in my journey has brought me where I am today, where I am supposed to be,” Barnes said. She has encountered many obstacles along the way and says they “came from wanting to make a difference, and not wanting to do something, to just do something.” Barnes added, “I got sidetracked by this and that and should have gone to nursing school right after CNA.” Around the time graduation in December of this year, Barnes wants to start working as an LPN helping Covid-19 patients while she tales her RN licensing exams. In the next few years, she sees herself going back to school and becoming a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA).