“When I first started as an RCN Student Ambassador, I felt like a very small part of the RCN machine,” says Catherine. “After a while I realised that everybody’s role is important, and what matters most is coming together as one.”
When RCN Northern Ireland began its industrial action in 2019, Catherine encouraged her peers to get involved wherever they could.
“Students played a major role. I wanted to be a part of it all because even though students couldn’t vote in the consultations and ballots which led to the industrial action, we were still a part of the profession that was being affected by unfair pay and unsafe staffing,” she says.
Everybody’s role is important and what matters most is coming together as one
“It was important for us to speak up and support the union and support our colleagues, but at the same time make sure we were protected. Other student ambassadors and I were very instrumental in that role."
Catherine not only took part in demonstrations and protested on picket lines, she helped her university to liaise with students taking part.
“During the strike action, I remember one day it was lashing with rain. Outside it was freezing cold, but the energy was fantastic.”
On the frontline
Catherine was part of the first student cohort asked to join the workforce when the COVID-19 pandemic hit as she was nearing the end of her final year.
She explains: “It was incredibly difficult because all the information was changing – not just on a daily basis, but sometimes changing several times throughout that day.”
During the pandemic Catherine worked in a rapid response team set up by Queen's University Belfast to support and troubleshoot any issues students faced on placement or in their academic studies.
While it was difficult not to get overwhelmed, having the RCN and her university behind her made a difference.
“We were meeting with members of the school as well as members of the union, so there were a lot of different aspects to my role. I was a student, I was an ambassador, and I was part of the workforce.”
Amplifying student voices
Catherine was a mature student and she balanced her studies around raising six children. Over the past year, when the pressure was on, she thought about taking a step back to focus on her family, but instead she chose to continue her degree.
“I had trained for three years to get to this point, and I thought I had a lot to contribute. All nursing students give a lot to the workforce,” she says.
“When I qualified, I realised that in a profession like nursing, you’re never not a student. You’re learning every single day and the education journey continues throughout your career.”
Catherine was encouraged to run for an elected position on the RCN Northern Ireland Board, and even though she didn’t win, she came away feeling “ten feet tall”.
“It’s about trying to convey the positive messages,” she says. "We have a lot of challenges in nursing, but we need to talk about the good stuff as well.
"These problems won’t just go away, but if we work together and support each other, that’s how we’ll achieve change.”
Catherine qualified this year and now works as a surgical vascular nurse. She’s been instrumental in setting up a newly registered nurse network in Northern Ireland (@RCN_NI_NRN) and is awaiting her steward training.
Do you want to be an RCN Student Ambassador?
The RCN Student Ambassador role is for a nursing student who is passionate, who wants to make a difference, who has energy and enthusiasm and who is willing to become active with the RCN to make positive changes.
The role has several responsibilities, including supporting students and signposting them to helpful resources, engaging peers in RCN campaigns and making sure their voice is heard, and questioning and influencing issues that affect student education and experience.
Find more information on the RCN Student Ambassador role here, and go to this page for more on the RCN Newly Registered Nurse Network