Focus on Faces
NMJC Nursing Student Honors Past through Service
2/25/2008 11:48:41 a.m. - Hobbs, NM. This spring, when one New Mexico Junior College student walks across the stage to receive her diploma, she will finally be coming home.
Denise Rusk, who will graduate with her Associate of Applied Science in Nursing degree in May, has achieved much in her time at NMJC. Her most recent accomplishment was being named to one of the most prestigious academic teams in the state. As president of NMJC's Psi Theta chapter of Phi Theta Kappa (PTK), the international honor society for community college students, Rusk was nominated to represent the college as a member of this year's All-New Mexico Academic Team for her outstanding academic performance and service to the community. On January 23, the team, comprised of 33 students from the state's 18 community colleges, was honored at a ceremony in the Rotunda of the State Capitol in Santa Fe. According to the 31-year-old honor student and mother of three, the most impressive thing about the entire trip was seeing the process through which bills, policies, and laws for the state are passed. "It was a wonderful learning experience," she said, "and I'm so grateful for the opportunity."
As president of PTK, Rusk has put in considerable time helping others. The organization, which spearheads a large annual Christmas celebration for the foster kids of Lea County, holds fundraisers throughout the year to underwrite costs. This year, approximately 140 names of foster children were received for the holiday event, and Rusk and the PTK group, with generous support from employees of NMJC, made certain that every foster child attending was able to celebrate the evening not only with a personal visit from Santa, but also with fun, food, festivities, and a present hand-selected just for them. "It's hard work to put this function together, but the reward of seeing these children have a great time is well worth the time spent," she said.
Rusk knows firsthand about children's needs. The oldest of four, Rusk was 13 when her father died. The nurses who helped the family through the three-year ordeal -- especially the hospice nurses -- made a big impact on the young girl, and that, she assumes, was when the idea to be a nurse first began. "All the hospice nurses were good, but this one nurse in particular was great. She not only took care of my father, but she also took care of us, the family. It helped in so many ways, and I never forgot. As I got older, I used to think about how it would be to help others the way she did, but I didn't think that I could ever do it, especially since I was scared of hospitals and needles and such."
It wasn't until three years ago that the old desire to become a nurse resurfaced strongly enough for her to act on it. Her baby son had had an accident, and she and her husband had brought him to the Emergency Room at Lea Regional Hospital. The whole time, she couldn't quit thinking that had she been a nurse, she could have taken care of him. Instead, she had worked in banking for the past eight years, and the prospect of switching careers so radically had always been somewhat frightening. As they left the hospital and passed by the campus of New Mexico Junior College, however, she looked at the school and began to picture herself there for the next few years. Her husband, knowing her long-time dream, offered her the encouragement she needed and urged her to go ahead and apply to the nursing program. Which, she insists, is exactly what she immediately did. "I'd been out of school for ten years, and if it hadn't been for that ER visit, I'd still be working at the bank, and I wouldn't have had the courage to pursue a dream I'd had for such a long time. I started out taking just one class to see if I liked it and could do it. I did. And people were so encouraging with their comments and feedback. That's when I knew I could be a nurse. When I told my mom, she was so happy and so proud. This May, she'll be coming to see me graduate. I'm the first one in my family to graduate with a college degree, and that's important to me. Whether I become an ICU nurse, which I'm leaning toward, or even a hospice nurse, I want to be there for people the way I remember those nurses being there for us."
Her advice to others? "I would tell anyone who wants to pursue their dreams to simply go for it and not let any circumstances stop them. You can always find excuses, especially when you're afraid. I did. But whatever you need, there are resources out there, such as grants and scholarships and people who will help you. It's been challenging trying to balance all my different roles as a student, a wife, and a mom, but I've become a different person for it, a better person for it. It's been hard, but I'd definitely do it again."
Rusk has come a long way from the little girl who grew up in Little Elm, Texas, where she ran barefoot in the country with her brother and sisters. She's also come a long way from Awatukee, Arizona, where the family moved after her father's death. And she's an even longer way from a stint in the Air Force where she attended Tech School and dealt with electronics, traffic management, and operations. But on May 9, she will come full circle as she walks across the stage to begin life as a professional nurse, a journey that was unknowingly begun 18 years ago when the torch of service and compassion was passed to a young girl as a means of comfort. Today, she knows exactly what her father would say, his radiant blue eyes smiling at her. "He would tell me how proud he is of me," she said, "and he would say, 'I knew you could do it.'"
And he would be right. Welcome home, Denise Rusk.