Student voice

A challenging transition

Making the move from HCA to nurse requires enormous effort and resilience, so it helps if nursing is a labour of love

Making the move from HCA to nurse requires enormous effort and resilience, so it helps if nursing is a labour of love

Emma Cowen
Emma Cowen. Picture: Nathan Clarke

After leaving school, I had no idea what I wanted to do until I became a healthcare assistant (HCA) on a paediatric cardiac ward in Bristol.

Walking on to the ward on my first day, I felt at home. It was exhilarating, exhausting and terrifying. I was 21 and straightaway felt that this was what I would be doing with the rest of my life.

I moved to Brighton to work in the children’s emergency department and learned so much, not just clinical skills but also how to unwind after a traumatic day, stay calm in a crisis and deal with five night shifts in a row. But much as I loved being an HCA, after five years I was ready to become a nurse.

I had to do a higher education access course before applying for a nursing degree. I completed the year-long course while working full-time, writing essays on my break at 5am, dragging myself out of bed after three hours’ sleep to work on a presentation.

I had always hated school and had put in the bare minimum, scraping through with a decent number of GCSEs and A levels. But I was determined now – I had fallen in love with nursing, and this was a labour of love.

At university, my first-year workload seemed so light after the access course year. Just one essay, four hours of lectures and 16 hours in placement a week.


But I had underestimated the level of the work required of me at degree level, and failed my first essay. It made me wonder what I was doing – I had left a job I loved and was good at for something I might not be able to do.

After feeling out of my depth, I was excited to start my first placement. Unlike most others in my cohort, I wasn’t nervous. I knew the ward I was going to be starting on, having worked there as an HCA.

After years of watching students I had a good idea what was expected of me. But I had no idea how exhausting it would be.

Having been fairly autonomous as an HCA, I was second-guessing all the time now, checking everything with my mentor. It is hard to be the new person, and as a student you always are. Each time you get comfortable you move placement and start again – with a new team, ward layout and storeroom code to memorise.

Many times when I missed being part of a team or struggled with an essay, I wondered what I was doing. But becoming a nurse is the best decision I ever made.

I still have the hardest year ahead of me. But I cannot wait to qualify and have the honour of being able to call myself a nurse.

About the author

Emma Cowen is a children’s nursing student at the University of Brighton

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