Cecilia Pérez, RN, graduated from the UW School of Nursing in 2018. Currently, she works in Olympia as a staff nurse in primary care (family practice and pediatrics) at Kaiser Permanente. Before moving into her role at KP, Cecilia worked at Thurston County Public Health and Social Services in community health. She is also a member of the Western Washington National Association of Hispanic Nurses (WW-NAHN) and SEIU Healthcare 1199NW.
WCN: How or why did you come to choose nursing as a career path?
Cecilia Pérez: I knew I wanted to be in healthcare but was undecided on what exactly I wanted to do. I also knew that I wanted to attend the UW because they have an incredible health sciences program. I was pre-med for a while. While attending school, I started volunteering at the UW Medical Center. There I saw what exactly doctors and nurses do and just how different their roles are. That’s when I got interested in nursing. I did some job shadowing, and that cemented my decision to go into nursing. They were the ones with the patients twelve and half hours a day actively working with them versus another health care provider who might come in once or twice a shift. That was more appealing to me.
Also, when I was young, my father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I remember being with my dad at his appointments at the farm workers clinic and seeing the health care workers that could speak to us in Spanish, our native language. I saw the difference that made for my dad. So, in some ways, I think I also wanted to be that person for someone else.
WCN: Nursing is a challenging job and often traumatic. What techniques or strategies do you use to build resiliency, remain effective, and not burn out?
Cecilia Pérez: What I’ve found to be most effective is being active. Exercise lets me be fully present in my body. Sometimes I feel like the trauma that nurses both see and experience can alienate us from ourselves. It can isolate us from our bodies where we don’t even realize it. It can be like, oh, I have this ache in my back. I wonder how long that’s been there? One thing that helps me feel like I’m in my body, and loving it, is running, or going on a bike ride alongside the dog. Being present in my body helps me a lot. I also recently got a puppy, and she helps me to do that too. Those two things are big resiliency things for me.
My family’s support is also essential. I live on the western side of the state but most of my family lives in eastern or central Washington. But even though I’m physically not near them, it’s encouraging to talk to my mom multiple times a week. I also lean on my sister a lot for support, and my partner is great too! Another community that comes to mind, that’s almost like a spiritual community for me, is my yoga community. It helps to have that accountability with others where we practice and share space together regularly. And again, doing something that helps me feel in my body.
WCN: Work-life balance is also necessary when your career involves caring for other people. What does work-life balance look like for you?
Cecilia Pérez: What I’ve found works for me is not working full-time. I know this is not achievable for a lot of people. Right now, I’m working a 0.6 FTE. This is the first time in my career that I have not worked full-time, so it feels odd. But I find having a lower FTE allows me time to really destress and get ready for the next work week.
In addition, finding organizations like the WW-NAHN is also valuable. Having an additional community like this helps build resiliency and can help buffer some of the stresses of being a nurse. For example, when I go to meetings, it is such a good feeling to be in a room with other people who look like me and who have been on a similar path. By that, I mean that we were all nurses or nursing students, and there are others there who are also first-generation college students, and we are all Latinx, so we have that in common, too. We can’t do this alone. None of us can. We must tap into communities where we can help bring each other up.
WCN: What are some challenges you faced to become a nurse? And how did you overcome them?
Cecilia Pérez: I’m a first-generation college student, so I found that the challenges I faced really were the systemic kind. Things like the process of just trying to reach college. The challenges of figuring out the different application requirements and all the nuances of actually making it to school. Additionally, when you are enrolled at someplace like the UW, it’s incredibly competitive. I remember being in one of my nursing classes with a group of around 30 students, and I and maybe one other student were the only two students who didn’t have a private tutor to help get us through and be competitive for nursing school. Those were huge barriers to navigate.
I overcame the challenges by expanding my support community. While at the UW, I participated in the Educational Opportunity Program under their Multicultural Center. As a first-generation college student, I was paired up with an academic counselor who helped me figure out what classes I needed to take and what important deadlines were coming up. Programs like that, I think, are so important for first-generation college students.
WCN: So far in your career, what do you enjoy most about being a nurse?
Cecilia Pérez: One of my favorite nursing roles has been as a nurse home visitor in the Nurse-Family Partnership program through the Department of Health. I worked with first-time moms from pre-birth through the child’s second birthday. It was an incredible opportunity to build a strong relationship with another person in a professional capacity where I felt like I made a difference in their life.
WCN: Why do you think diversity and representation are important in the nursing workforce?
Cecilia Pérez: It’s important to the different levels of trust that people can have with different people. By that, I mean I can very quickly build rapport with a Spanish-speaking person, generally. I’m great at it because that is my community, “mi gente.” In healthcare, building that trust is huge. Maybe a patient couldn’t access a well-child check before having met you. But because you can help communicate why the well-child check is so important and then help with some of the additional work like filling out the application, now they can access that well-child check. Ultimately what that does is help to reduce disparities in our state. We know that different ethnic groups have shorter life expectancies than white Americans. Reducing disparities is huge, both in our state and the nation.
WCN: What has your experience been this year as a relatively new nurse during the pandemic?
Cecilia Pérez: I was working at my previous job when the pandemic started last year. I was a nurse home visitor with a very at-risk population for COVID morbidities. When the pandemic first started, the Health Department decided almost immediately to go to a telehealth model. That was my experience during COVID. I was one of the people working from home. However, I think nursing is a unique career to have that model of work. Before, I could be sitting in a person’s home doing my assessment, seeing what I see, even smelling what I smell. My nursing assessment felt so much more robust and thorough versus a telehealth model. Working over the phone, I’m just talking to someone and hearing what I hear. That was a difficult experience, and ultimately one of the reasons I decided to leave my first job. As much as I absolutely loved it, it felt like the nature of the work had changed. Now, I’m still working through the pandemic and the Delta variant, but I’m in a clinical setting.
WCN: What are your future career goals in nursing?
Cecilia Pérez: Largely because of my last job, I have a growing interest in lactation. Currently, I’m working towards a CLC certificate, which is a Certified Lactation Counselor. Once I have that certificate, I want to get a position focusing on lactation and lactation assistance. I want to get an IBCLC, which is an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant. Those two things will take me several years. I’ve also had a running thought in my mind of going back to school for DNP in Community Health.
Thinking about it now, my mom used to tell me that my grandmother on my dad’s side was a curandera in Mexico. That means she was a healing person, but one who specifically supported women during childbirth. It is interesting to think that this interest is running in the family across generations.
WCN: Given your experience so far in your nursing program and nursing, what advice do you have for those considering a career in nursing?
Cecilia Pérez: First, I would say nursing can be a great place to be. It is so unique and so broad. Each care environment can be so different. It’s a great place to be If you are a person who likes change and challenging yourself.
The second piece of advice I would give, and probably more importantly, is to follow your gut on what you want to do. I think nursing schools across the U.S. are good a preparing you to be a hospital nurse. But that is not the end-all-be-all of nursing. It’s okay if that is not your interest. There are so many other options, like community health or public health, that might be a better fit for you.
Another thing I would say to others considering nursing is, don’t settle on places where you are not appreciated. One of my favorite sayings is, “jump and a net will appear.” Nursing is one of those careers that is going to catch you time after time. Have faith in that. I am pro-labor and pro-labor union. At my last job, I was a shop steward for AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union, and in my current position, I’m a member of SEIU. I think it is important to know you can organize and demand better working conditions when it’s needed.