Elizabeth Labadens, a UNC Greensboro student graduating with her Master of Science in Nursing

Elizabeth Labadens comes from a family full of teachers, and she thought about becoming one as well.

She decided instead to go into nursing, but as she made her rounds at the Novant Health Kernersville Medical Center, she found she still enjoyed teaching.

Labadens helped newly hired nurses with their orientations and taught nursing students who did their clinical rotations at the hospital. Last year, she became an adjunct clinical instructor at Forsyth Technical Community College.

Along the way, Labadens discovered another way to merge her love for teaching with her nursing career. She enrolled in UNC Greensboro’s online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program and started working toward a degree in the Nursing Education concentration.

“I just thought, ‘You know, I really want to go back to what I originally wanted to do, which was teaching,’” Labadens said. “I really didn’t see myself as a nurse practitioner. I didn’t really want to be in an office.

“I love seeing patients, but that didn’t really fit with me. I wasn’t interested in going into administration. I still wanted to be at the bedside and then teaching students how to become nurses. So, the Nursing Education degree seemed like the perfect fit.”

Friday will be a big day for the 38-year-old nurse and married mother of two sons. In addition to graduating with her MSN degree, she’ll serve as the student speaker at UNCG’s Commencement Ceremony in the Greensboro Coliseum.

Labadens said she has tried not to stress too much about the speech she’ll give to the new graduates and their friends and family members. She wants to say a few supportive, encouraging words and then savor the moment with her family.

“I’m definitely very nervous,” Labadens said. “But I’ve told myself not to stress about it and this is an exciting time for all the graduates and their families who have come so far, especially during the COVID times, that I’m just going to do my very best and enjoy the day.”

Labadens has plenty of stories from her unconventional path to nursing that she can work into her graduation speech.

As a teenager, she was introduced to medicine while volunteering at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem. She mostly did clerical work and helped direct hospital visitors to where they needed to go.

One day, Labadens and another high school volunteer were allowed to put on operating room scrubs and watch as a patient underwent open-heart surgery.

“We did not see it from start to finish, but we saw some of it and I was really fascinated by that,” Labadens said. “I’d always had an interest in science and greatly enjoyed dissection labs in high school biology. Where people were grossed out, I was all in.

“So, I always had an interest in medical things.”

Labadens graduated from Salem College in 2005 with a bachelor of arts in American studies with a minor in history. Her plan was to still teach in higher education, but she decided to take a break before starting graduate school and took a job at a law office in Atlanta.

While there, Labadens met her husband, who was active duty in the U.S. Army. Two sons, three deployments, and several cross-country moves later, she enrolled in Central Texas College, a community college in Killeen, Texas, to become a nurse.

Labadens said she thought nursing would be a good profession as a military spouse. She’d be able to get a job wherever her husband was stationed, and she started working as a nurse at age 31.

In August 2019, Labadens started taking classes in UNCG’s MSN program. She was in graduate school as she had planned on doing years earlier, except now she had to juggle her class assignments on top of her family life and a full-time nursing career.

“Well, you have to be very self-motivated,” Labadens said. “I would keep a very detailed planner, and I would have to plan out my week based on what assignments were due, what days I had to work, because really the days I worked there was not going to be any school done those days because after working 12, 13 hours my brain is kind of done.”

Labadens said she hopes to someday become a full-time nursing faculty member. It turns out she might be a teacher after all.

However, she has one more assignment to do before she leaves UNCG. She must give a graduation speech to the Class of 2021.

“It is a huge accomplishment,” Labadens said of earning her MSN degree. “I’m just kind of super excited to be finished and to see what the next chapter will be.”

Story and photography by Alex Abrams, School of Nursing