Gaining a sense of purpose in the midst of COVID-19

How Gator Nursing students are helping to bring an end to the pandemic

By Rachel Rivera

BSN senior Ashley Velasquez had a winter break unlike any other. When a request was sent for student volunteers to assist with the UF Health COVID-19 vaccination rollout, Velasquez jumped on the opportunity. Since Dec. 23, she has been volunteering three to four days a week at the UF Health Springhill vaccination location.

Although she initially wanted to pursue medical school, Velasquez found a love for being at the patient’s bedside after working as a certified nursing assistant at UF Health. A mix of curiosity and fascination about how the human body functions and reacts to different diseases led her to the world of health care. As a first-generation college student, and also the first health care professional on both sides of her family, Velasquez is getting to use that passion to help fight COVID-19.

While this is a senior year unlike the one she had expected, Velasquez has embraced every part of it, the good and the bad. She said being on the front lines helping vaccinate those in the community has given her a sense of purpose.

“People are so eager to partake in this historic event that is the vaccine,” Velasquez said of her experience volunteering. “Whether the person is receiving it or giving it, everyone is just so grateful that we are a step closer to getting rid of this virus. I thought I would meet a lot more people who would be shy to take the vaccine, but so many put their trust in the health care community to deliver something safe and effective, and I couldn’t be more honored than to hold a part of that trust.”


Although Velasquez was one of the first to begin administering the vaccine, she certainly was not the only one. In the spring as part of their course work for Clinical Reasoning and Personalized Nursing Care: Population Health, BSN seniors were required to complete 16 hours of volunteering at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic. The course provides knowledge and principles of personalized nursing care required for community and public health nursing practice. Emphasis within the curriculum is on integrating community-based, community-oriented and population-focused concepts.

Clinical assistant professor Sallie Shipman, EdD, MSN, RN, CNL, NHDP-BC, CNE, said the vaccine clinics provide a hands-on experience for the students, who were learning in a virtual environment last year.

“Typically, students in this course would be working directly with our community partners in the development of their Community Impact Project. However, COVID-19 significantly altered the student’s opportunity for face-to-face interaction during the implementation since the project would have to be implemented virtually,” Shipman said. “They are very excited to participate in COVID-19 vaccine clinics because it gives them the opportunity to positively impact the community in a time of need during a pandemic.”

UF Health COVID-19 vaccination sites are full of volunteers, ranging from health professional students to nursing professionals and even IT professionals. While College of Nursing students would typically get to interact with some of these health care professionals during their clinical rotations, this level of teamwork holds a deeper meaning for Velasquez.

“Every single nurse — including other staff members — I have met while working at the COVID-19 vaccine clinics were not only kind, but eager to teach me,” she said. “At every site where I have volunteered, everyone was more than happy to have me working with them. They made me feel not only part of their team, but also just as important as anyone else.”

While volunteering, Velasquez contributed to vaccinating over 30,000 people, and she even administered the vaccine for Gator Nurse alumna and UF Health vice president of nursing and patient services, Irene Alexaitis, DNP, RN, NEA-BC.

“I, myself, got my vaccine from Ashley Velasquez, and I thought it was important to acknowledge what she was doing for us,” Alexaitis said. “I think she was a little nervous when she found out who I was, but she did a wonderful job. She was our first volunteer, and I really appreciate her and every volunteer that came after that.”

Velasquez said her experience at the vaccine clinics put the pandemic in perspective for her.


“I’m so glad I volunteered because I feel so productive and like I’m doing something for my community as well as putting in my little grain of sand to contribute fighting COVID-19!”

While the adjustment to the curriculum has had its challenges for students and faculty alike, Shipman said they all stayed positive and fully embraced the challenging times.

“The whole pandemic has been challenging, but nurses are known for being flexible,” she said. “We just have to do our best. I always say ‘look at every challenge as an opportunity.’ What these students were doing was giving back and helping the community. It was also their first sign of hope – it has been a dark year and this has shown them the light.”

A special message from UF Health vice president of nursing and patient services, Irene Alexaitis, DNP, RN, NEA-BC. :