Have Purdue Nursing degree, will travel for alumna

Jessica Mahecha during a nursing shift

Jessica Mahecha, a 2020 Purdue Nursing alumna, has found opportunity in travel nursing.Photo provided

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

The nursing field has had its challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Staffing shortages, trauma and job instability shook the field in 2020 and continued into 2022.

During these tumultuous times, travel nursing skyrocketed. Nurses sign short contracts — usually a few months — to work in hospitals all over the country to alleviate nursing shortages. In 2020, travel nurse positions increased by 35%. Pay was lucrative; however, salaries are starting to fall in some regions.

The higher pay was designed to entice skilled nurses nationwide but to also accommodate them in new settings. Jessica Mahecha, a 2020 Purdue University School of Nursing alumna, jumped into a pandemic and found a niche in travel nursing. While her career goal is to work steadily at an East Coast hospital, the Summit, New Jersey, native is currently working on a three-month contract in San Francisco gaining new experience.

“This was the reason I got into it — to continue to learn and to grow,” Mahecha said. “I think sometimes the concept of traveling and being in a new place around new people is really frightening, and I would say that’s a normal thing that all of us experience. But it’s definitely worth it. I feel like I’ve grown more in these three months than I would have in three months at my staff job where I was very comfortable. It seems scary and daunting at first, but the pros far outweigh the cons.”

Mahecha started her career at Duke Raleigh Hospital in North Carolina, which is still her home base, but just a handful of months in travel nursing has brought her new experiences and additional opportunities to put her Purdue College of Health and Human Sciences training into practice.

Your career was greeted by the pandemic. When did you decide to become a travel nurse?

As a May 2020 graduate, I was thrown right into COVID-19, and I worked on a COVID-19 unit for a little over a year and a half. April of this year is when I left to do travel nursing.

Why did you make that jump?

Nursing is a field where you are constantly learning, and I basically felt too comfortable where I was at. I felt in order to grow as a nurse, I needed a new environment where I could learn new skills and new protocols while caring for different patient demographics. In addition, getting to visit cool places and travel wherever I wanted also attracted me.

What are your thoughts on the rise of travel nursing the last couple years?

It speaks of a larger problem in the system. Instead of raising staff rates, nurses will leave, and hospitals will fill positions with travel nurses, who are making more on paper, but for the hospital, it’s less money because they don’t have to pay benefits for those nurses. From the hospital’s perspective, travel nurses are more flexible as well. They can cancel contracts or hire more nurses however they see fit. I feel as though until inpatient conditions are significantly improved, travel nurses will need to be utilized.

What challenges are there stepping into a new hospital?

I would say the biggest challenge when you go somewhere new is not knowing what resources are available. With two years’ experience (working in the same facility), I know what the end result needs to be, and it can be challenging not knowing how to get there in a new environment. At first, it takes a lot of time and effort, which can be frustrating in the fast-paced environment of the hospital.

Have your skills been enhanced during your travel nursing experience?

I’d say my problem-solving has gotten a lot better because I don’t always have someone there to ask questions to. I have to work things through in order to best care for my patients. I would also say as a traveler I have had to manage a harder, tougher patient assignment. I’ve gotten much better at skills such as critical thinking and time management, which are essential with (simultaneously caring for) four sickly patients.

What advice would you give a nurse to have a smooth transition into travel nursing?

Always be willing to help if you can. That’s the best way to meet other co-workers and to also learn from them. Of course, communication is key with management, patients, co-workers and just about anyone else.

What lessons or experiences at Purdue have helped you during your travel nursing?

In general, I feel like I left Purdue with a higher baseline understanding of what it means to be a nurse. The job is so multifaceted, and I feel as though I left with such a well-rounded understanding of nursing. I felt prepared — not that I knew everything, but to think through the entire nursing process. Purdue Nursing provided a good foundation that I continue to build from every time I walk into the hospital.