First Nursing graduates fulfilling dreams in Peace River region

UNBC Stories
Six people wearing academic regalia pose for photo in front of rock wall.
The Northern Baccalaureate Nursing Program's Class of 2023.

When Heather McAleney spoke on behalf of the first graduating class from the Northern Baccalaureate Nursing Program at UNBC’s graduation ceremony in Fort St. John, it was momentous not only for her personally, but collectively for her classmates, faculty instructors, as well as residents living in the Peace River and beyond.

McAleney began her post-secondary journey in 2018, expecting it would eventually be necessary to leave her home community to enter the Nursing program at UNBC’s Prince George campus.

“I never imagined I would be graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree in my hometown of Fort St. John,” says the newly Registered Nurse, one of nine students in the NBNP’s inaugural cohort.

A response to calls from communities in northern B.C. to address challenges in the health-care system and developed through regional collaboration, the School of Nursing designed the program to introduce students to the unique aspects of delivering health care in small urban and rural communities.

McAleney tailored her college courses and had the program’s prerequisites in time for the first intake of students. “By being in the first cohort, I knew I would be paving the way for future cohorts of nurses, which to me was exciting and interesting enough,” she says. “But being able to lessen the financial burden by continuing to live in my hometown allowed me to focus more on my assignments and exams.”

For Lexine Giroux, the program came at a critical juncture in her life. The former probation officer wanted to transition into a new career and was contemplating having to leave Fort St. John. “However, being a single mother presented challenges with childcare and travel,” she says. “I am so grateful for the opportunity to pursue my dream of becoming a Registered Nurse, while remaining local.”

Giroux has accepted a position as a Community Mental Health Outreach Nurse in Fort St. John. “I’m excited to gain more hands-on experience working with marginalized populations and to work to improve their access to health care.”

Originally from Italy, Valentina Lucherini had been a paramedic in Fort St. John until her work permit was not renewed and she had to return to her home county. “The NBNP program in Fort St. John allowed me to come back as an international student to what I started to consider my home and allowed me to pursue my goal.”

Already employed as a nurse with In-Patient Services at the Fort St. John hospital, Lucherini’s goal is to work in the Emergency Department. “It is important to have the NBNP program in Fort St. John because it is a long-term solution to the problem of nurse shortages in the Peace region.”

Most of the graduates from the Class of 2023 plan to remain in the region, including McAleney who says she has her dream job at the Dawson Creek and District Hospital.

“I just recently finished my training for the perioperative specialty, so on top of now being a newly Registered Nurse, I am now O.R.-trained and have begun working in the operating room,” she says. “I’m just waking up everyday and smelling the roses, being brave and living my life to the fullest and I’m just so thankful for everything UNBC prepared me for.”

Also crossing the stage at the Pomeroy Hotel and Conference Centre to enthusiastic applause from family, friends and community supporters, were seven graduates receiving their Bachelor of Social Work degrees.

Acknowledging the challenges her cohort faced during the Covid pandemic and those they will face in their chosen careers, Graduate Speaker Jolene van Wieringen commended her cohort on their ability to grow through trying times, persevere and come out stronger.

Van Wieringen has also transitioned into her dream job, as a Social-Emotional Learning Specialist working with middle and high school students at the Indigenous Education Centre in School District 60. The new social worker developed a relationship with staff and students at the centre during a practicum in the third year of her program and began in her new position one month before graduation. “I love it, I absolutely love it,” says van Wieringen. “I know it’s where I belong. I enjoy connecting with students. It’s definitely my calling.

“I have so many goals with this degree,” says the new graduate. “I want to connect with people, I want to advocate for youth, I want to help others, I just want to have an impact on social justice.”