Nursing graduate and National Guard soldier relies on passion and persistence to build impactful career

College of Nursing graduate and United States Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Jutona Hightower said becoming a nurse always felt like it's what she was meant to do.

“I always tell people I didn’t choose nursing, nursing chose me,” Hightower said. “Even when I tried to move away from it, I really feel my purpose was revealed to me. It’s been revealed through patient care over the years, taking care of different people and changing lives.”

In 2021, Hightower was on COVID-19 orders with the U.S. Army National Guard to help administer vaccines in Detroit, where she worked with Wayne State nursing students who were completing their clinicals. After meeting Clinical Instructor Stefan Smolenski, DNP, Hightower discovered the College of Nursing’s BSN for Veterans (VBSN) pathway and realized she wanted to be part of it, committing to work toward her degree during an intense moment in her life.

“At that time, I was trying to get into the VBSN program while fighting to gain custody of my baby sister,” Hightower recalled. “I remember getting off a flight with my sister, making it to Detroit at 3 a.m. and then getting up at 6 a.m. to go take a final exam.”

Hightower, a born-and-raised Detroiter, previously attended WSU in 2009 before leaving to work as a certified nursing assistant. She ultimately joined the spring 2022 VBSN cohort and got back to pursuing her purpose, benefiting from a pathway tailored to veterans like her.

“I wanted to come back and finish where I started,” she said. “The support is amazing — the monthly meetings, mandatory tutoring and all the extra resources. That kind of assistance and just being part of that program has made a huge difference for me.”

In the VBSN program, Hightower completed a range of clinical rotations at the John D. Dingell Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak and the DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital emergency room. She also worked at DaVita Dialysis Center, treating patients with end-stage renal disease as a certified clinical hemodialysis technician while still completing her drills and military orders.

“That is one of the biggest stressors for those of us who have military duty, trying to find that balance,” she said. "It’s good to have people in your corner willing to work around it and still set you up for success. It’s amazing being able to have all the clinicals that we can at the VA hospital. We’re able to build that rapport with patients because we have shared experiences. Once they find out you’re a veteran or currently serving, it provides them some comfort.”

Hightower also joined Wayne State’s chapter of Chi Eta Phi, a professional sorority for registered nurses and nursing students. She explained the additional benefits of her community service activities on behalf of the sorority such as volunteering at events downtown to teach CPR and administering blood pressure tests and health screenings in the Detroit community.

Hightower (left) with friends and Chi Eta Phi sorority sisters

Now, as she prepares for graduation, Hightower is especially grateful for the College of Nursing faculty and staff members who stepped up when she needed support both in and out of the classroom and clinical settings.

“They have been supportive throughout this journey in every possible way. That means a lot, because they didn’t just show up as teachers, they showed up as compassionate human beings,” she said.

Support from faculty made her Wayne State nursing education special, but it was the peers in Hightower’s cohort who helped her through it all.

“I could not have done it without those standing beside me, because I feel like our cohort was so tight,” she said. “We worked together extremely well. When there were times we saw somebody else was down, we picked each other up.”

Hightower will enter the nursing workforce as an ICU nurse at Karmanos Cancer Center and further her education at the College of Nursing, pursuing her DNP in the adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner specialty alongside many of those who were in her VBSN cohort.

Her post-graduation plans also include becoming an officer in the National Guard to commission in in the U.S. Army Nursing Corps. By continuing to pursue her passion, Hightower plans to use her nursing career to make an even greater impact.

“I’m not going to say that completing this program sparked a fire I didn’t know I had, because I did know. But it gave me opportunities to light that fire again,” she said. “I feel like I’m unstoppable. I’m ready to go make a difference and save lives.”

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