“I didn’t quite understand what it meant to ask for help. And I didn’t understand what it meant to not understand something and not realize it. I did not know it was possible to be brought up to speed, I just thought I couldn’t do it.”

Yoon-Hee is an ICU nurse in Minneapolis. Born to Korean immigrant parents, the youngest daughter after two older brothers, Yoon-Hee came from a family that had high expectations from birth. Her grandfather would refer to all the grandchildren as future Doctors when referring to them, and her own older brothers had helped her parents set out the roadblock for her that would be in place for her schooling years. Not necessarily coming from a place of knowing just the right moves to make, her parents did go out of their way to make sure the opportunities that they came across they would take up for their children. During elementary school, Yoon-Hee, like her brothers, started playing piano and violin and joined the school orchestra. Her parents also enrolled in her basketball and tennis. “There was a lot that we could accomplish with the violin. We took private lessons, as well as community orchestras, and then we were expected to get into all-state.”

It can be expected that parents encourage kids to do things that they do not necessarily like, especially when it comes to musical instruments. “At first I did it because my parents told me to and of course I didn’t like it. But then I got older and I had fun with it because my friends did it and I didn’t need my parents anymore. I would start actually understanding the advice given to me and I would listen to it so I could get better. At a certain point, mastery comes in and I could push myself because I could see results. And it feels good to be good at something.” As for basketball, it was a miserable experience. And tennis was a fun side thing to play, but she never had the time to put into it to get to varsity, with her violin activities as well, so she prioritized violin.

When it came to high school classes, Yoon-Hee had the understanding from her family, she was expected to go into the sciences and to become a physician. Her paternal grandfather encouraged all of his children to become doctors, and all of his grandchildren after that to become doctors. He would even write letters referring to them as the “Future Doctor,” or “Future Nobel Prize Winner.” Therefore, she was expected to take the path that would lead her to become a doctor. Yoon-Hee took advanced classes and AP whenever possible, sacrificing some classes when it might conflict with her orchestra classes. She also had a personal desire to do well and understood that there were benefits to doing well and consequences.

A unique opportunity that Yoon-Hee had with her high school called “Mentor Connection,” learning about first through her older brother, an organization that works with public school students and connected them with an opportunity to go and do something outside of academics. Yoon-Hee went to the University of Minnesota and read research about Alopecia (hair loss disease) out of possible interest in dermatology.

When it came time to apply to college, she was focused on two things. Staying in the Midwest, and going to a university that had a medical school associated with it. Yoon-Hee was accepted and attended Northwestern University, based on it being a great school and the debt burden being somewhat comparable coming out as the other schools she was accepted to.

Going into school, she was planning on being a premed student. One issue that arose in her first and second year, associated with her chemistry and physics classes, was that she was not as strong in chemistry and physics as her peers who had taken AP Chemistry and AP Physics in high school. This was one of the major classes that she could not take because of conflicts with orchestra and Mentor Connection.

This issue was something similar to what had happened to Yoon-Hee in 8th grade when she attended a special math program associated with the University of Minnesota Talented Youth Mathematics Program (UMTYMP, pronounced “um-tee-ump”). Yoon-Hee had a lot of trouble with the speed with which the math was taught, and did not really ever catch up. In hindsight, she thinks she could have gotten more assistance but did not know how to not do well at something. She just thought it was beyond her and failed out. The same happened in college with her science classes. She did not know how to get the extra help she needed or did not know she could. Perhaps thinking it was just beyond her, she accepted the fact that she was just not naturally good at these subjects.

When she went to speak to the advisors for students midway through her sophomore year, they told her she was not doing well enough to get into medical school. At the same time, she was struggling with depression from the stress of not doing well in her classes and knowing that this was drastically shifting her future for not becoming a doctor. She decided on majoring in Psychology thinking it sounded interesting enough, but also realizing her depression was tilting her in that direction. She also had enough classes by graduation to get another major in Political Science. No career in mind, much to the chagrin of her parents who did not know how to help a Psychology/Poli-Sci double major either, she just took classes that she enjoyed and found interesting.

Flash forward to spring 2008, the American economy is collapsing around the mortgage crisis. Not only did Yoon-Hee not have a clear career path in mind, there really were not many jobs available to students graduating from college. During her university’s senior week, she got a call from a Chicago-based education firm that had found her resume on monster.com. They offered her a job interview, and then soon after the initial job interview, a job. She took it because she had a lot of student debt to worry about, and no other clear path forward.

Yoon-Hee ended up working for this firm for nearly two years while continuing to live in Chicago. At the same time that she was trying to sell software to help schools organize themselves better, school budgets were being slashed around the country. It was hard on her to see the outright devastation to schools that they could not even afford a product that she saw as relatively inexpensive but could help them immensely. This was causing even more sadness in her life, and confusion about paths forward as her parents pressured her to think more clearly about what she wanted from life and what her future should be.

 

Yoon-Hee captures the Chicago skyline

It was at this time that she decided to look into school to become a Physician’s Assistant. She was interested in pursuing a career that made her feel better about herself and do something she was more interested in. In order to get into PA school, she would need more classes, so she returned to Minnesota, used her little savings, and took classes at the University of Minnesota for the next two years to take the science classes that she needed. When she finally applied, she was

Coming home also happened to coincide with being able to give her family more assistance. Her paternal grandfather, the one who proclaimed her to be a future doctor, had been a Biology professor in Montana and had a collection of hundreds of plants. She used this time to take classes to also assist her family in organizing and categorizing his collection of plants, driving between Minnesota and Montana frequently. She also was assessing her own life and getting a better understanding of what financial and time obligations she would have for both herself and her family’s needs.

Another requirement that was put on her to actually get into PA School was to have actual care experience in the field before she could be accepted. Since she was trying to get into the field in the first place, she did not know what that meant. When she asked one of the schools to which she was applying, they recommended that she get a job as a nursing care assistant. She was able to get a job at a local Assisted Living and Memory Care Home just a few minutes away from her parent’s house. This was the first job and activity that she did that she loved in a long time. She felt helpful, useful, necessary and above all, she saw the impact of her work immediately. This job helped her see that it was actually a career of nursing that she would be better suited for because helping people on a daily basis actually helped her see that she can have a real-world impact on an individual level, even when the problems of the world weigh down on her.

She looked into nursing programs that sought to focus on helping nurses serve underserved populations. She applied for a Masters Entry level for nursing, which was part of the Affordable Healthcare Act – increasing the number of clinical health leaders in the nursing field to help with more leadership roles in healthcare. She had a 24 months long program and moved back to the Chicago area and attended Loyola. While attending school, Yoon-Hee did “clinicals,” where her class had an associated component to learn with nurses. once or twice a week to follow a nurse around for a shift. She also did a capstone project and spent 160 hours in the ER and followed a nurse around to really learn the methods of each part of the work entailed.

Yoon-Hee captures her graduation excitement

 

For those of you interested, Yoon-Hee shared about the different levels of nursing schools while being interviewed. At the base level, there is an Associates’s Degree in nursing. This is a two-year program. Many do this while working as a nurse’s assistant. You can also get a Bachelor of Science and nursing degree at a four-year college. Another option is to get a Bachelors’s, then apply to nursing school after that. There can be two methods, just getting the nursing degree on top of the bachelor’s – a bachelor of nursing on top of your other bachelor’s degree, or you can do what Yoon-Hee did and get a Master’s of Nursing – getting a Master’s degree and become an entry-level nurse.

Upon graduating, Yoon-Hee had to take her nursing boards in the state where she was going to live. So she returned to Minnesota to take the exams and then got a job at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), which is a level one trauma center. Minnesota also pays its nurses more than Illinois, which was another reason to move back to her home state. She received a job as an ICU nurse in a special program that helped mentor new nurses in more complicated fields of nursing with additional classes and support on the job.

Yoon-Hee and her coworker in Minneapolis during the 2020 Covid Pandemic

Working at HCMC has had its own challenges. Because of the population that the hospital is serving, they are often high-need residents who are not getting on-going care. She has had many difficult days of work, from patients who are challenging her, to also serving a population that is so underfunded and under-served, which uses a lot of her emotional energy. Then the summer of 2020 happened, with COVID compounded by the murder by a Minneapolis police officer of George Floyd, and the protests that ensued, Yoon-Hee has had a very challenging year. But she loves her job, and she feels that nursing has been a gift to her. She has also looked into applying to a new program to become a nurse-anesthetist, to continue growing and doing more work in her field.