Poonam Sharma may have two more years to go in her four-year nursing program, but she’s already helping to groom the next generation of frontline health-care workers.

As a student nurse ambassador for the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO), Sharma travels to high schools to speak to teens about what a career in nursing has to offer.

“It’s a growing field, and we want them to know it’s not just bedside care,” says Sharma, who is in the University of New Brunswick-Humber College collaborative nursing program. “There is so much you can do with nursing. You can work for public health, you can further your education and become a nurse practitioner.”

Nursing students like Sharma have ample opportunity for hands-on learning in an array of practice settings. Those interested in working as a nurse in Ontario can go one of two routes: A four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing to be a registered nurse, or a two-year diploma program to be a registered practical nurse.

As a student in the Ryerson University-George Brown College collaborative nursing program, Andrea Magat took on a different clinical placement in each year of study, progressing to a year-long placement at Toronto General Hospital in her fourth and final year.

“The nurses were supportive of nursing students, and it was just a great environment,” she says.

While many of her former classmates were hired at the same organization where they did their final-year placement, Magat was disappointed to learn earlier this year that Toronto General has imposed a hiring freeze due to budgetary constraints and wouldn’t be able to take on new graduates.

“Hearing about all the hospital cuts and budget cuts and everything else, it’s scary,” she says. “I guess it’s just self-initiative for each individual new graduate to market themselves out there.”

One tool she’s using in her job hunt is the Nursing Graduate Guarantee program. Launched by the province in February 2007, the initiative provides funding to health-care organizations to hire new graduates for a six-month period.

The Ontario government has invested $183 million in the program so far and will continue implementing the program for the 2009-2010 year.

Sharma may be a couple of years away from graduating, but she has already found plenty of opportunities outside the classroom to advocate for healthy living. She leads Humber’s “Leave the Pack Behind” anti-smoking campaign and has also acted as a peer health mentor on issues such as oral health, drawing on her experience as a preventative dental assistant before entering the nursing program.

“I love working with patients and I love being able to make a difference — and I’m able to advocate for patients as a nurse, which is a big part of nursing that a lot of people don’t know about,” says Sharma. “It’s science and it’s art, (so) you do get a really good perspective of everything.”

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