KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On Thursday, 188 University of Tennessee nursing students would have walked across the stage to get their diploma. But due to COVID-19, ceremonies were canceled.
The ending was bittersweet, but so many are excited to head out into the real world to help those in need.
In four years, nursing student Laura Phelps accomplished a lot.
"I wish I could go back and do it over again."
Her favorite memory on campus was being a part of the Precious Prints Project which provides hundreds of families grieving the loss of a child with a pendant of their child's fingerprint.
But a new chapter lies ahead.
"I'm going to work in an ICU in Nashville. I am as prepared as i can be and leaning on my fellow nurses there," she said.
She's heading to become a nurse on the front lines at St. Thomas Midtown in Nashville.
"There's still going to be COVID-19 cases and I'm needed more than ever," said Phelps. She said the feeling is surreal as she heads into the unknown.
"Even if COVID-19 wasn't going on I would feel unsure and trying to figure out… just knowing this is going on on top of that is going to be something I'm processing day to day."
Being able to see nurses play a critical role in the pandemic has inspired her.
"It showed more than ever what the role of nursing is and the unique role we have to get to help people during hard times and be front line workers," she said.
Seeing the community's support for her profession has meant the world and will use it as a reminder to push through even the hardest days.
"I think it's what feeds our passions and keeps people in the healthcare industry from getting burnt out and remembering why they're doing what they're doing," said Phelps.
It's daunting, but she said she's ready now more than ever to move on into the real world. She'll leave her legacy on Rocky Top to show the world her volunteer spirit: "I am making a difference."
Phelps received the UT Outstanding Student Award from the Tennessee Nurses Association and was honored with a gold medallion from UT’s Jones Center for Leadership and Service for volunteering more than 225 hours during her time at UT.
She also was awarded the DAISY Award for Extraordinary Nursing Students.