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The life of a Defence Force partner is never easy, let alone being a mother-of-two and studying to become a nurse while your husband is on deployment overseas.

Since marrying into the defence force in 2010, Sarah Van der Heyden has faced many challenges. On top of moving around Australia more than five times for her husband’s career, she's also spent countless hours alone raising their children with no family close by.

Earlier this year Sarah decided it was finally time to do something for herself and enrolled in a Diploma of Nursing (HLT54115) at TAFE Queensland.

“Since commencing my course there has been lots of hurdles, including my husband being deployed in Iraq for eight months, I've had a couple of surgeries and I have no family or support nearby so it hasn’t been the easiest time,” Sarah said.

“Nursing is just something I’ve always been interested in as I'm a people person and my nature is to care. It's also the perfect job for a Defence Force wife as I can do it wherever my husband gets posted.

Pursuing education can feel like a challenge for many Defence Force spouses, and it wasn’t until Sarah came across the online nursing course at TAFE Queensland that she saw an opportunity to chase her dream.

“The biggest hurdle for me, before even thinking about studying, was making sure I was going to be in the one location long enough to finish my studies without the upheaval of moving,” she said.

“TAFE Queensland, particularly the Southport campus, came highly recommended because of the facilities which replicate a real-life hospital. So when I discovered they had an online nursing diploma it was the perfect fit.

“A huge incentive for me was knowing the exact dates I was required to be on-campus for residential school blocks as it allowed me to plan care for my kids when my husband was deployed or away from home.”

The 36-year-old said she'd started and stopped studying at other vocational education providers a few times before, but TAFE Queensland had been extremely supportive and hands-on.

“Going through a deployment during this course was really challenging, but my teachers were able to support me when I needed it and the vocational placement team were able to be flexible with me, which took a lot of the stress out of it,” she said.

“I came into this course with a little bit of knowledge, mostly from previous study or work experience, but what I’ve learnt at TAFE is insurmountable and the practical skills are wide and varied.

“Something as simple as taking observations was once daunting, but now we’re consolidating our skills with wound dressings, looking for patient deterioration, managing pain and much more.”

Being an online student can be tough, but Sarah makes the most of the time she has on campus in the nursing labs during residential school.

“Being able to put the online theory into practice in the nursing labs is fundamental. The labs are amazing and exactly what you’d find in a hospital — it gave me a real understanding of what to expect when I go out on placement.”

After graduation, Sarah plans to work as an Enrolled Nurse while continuing her studies at university to become a Registered Nurse. With the completion of her diploma Sarah will receive one year of credit towards her degree with a TAFE Queensland partnered university.

“TAFE has been the first in many tertiary education steps, it has given me exposure and practical experience to get me straight into the workforce so I can further my education armed with clinical experience and knowledge,” she said.

Sarah’s advice to any other mothers or Defence Force partners thinking of returning to work and wanting to study at TAFE Queensland is to just do it.

“Don’t question it. Just do it. The hands-on training I received, the support I had from my TAFE teachers, and the friendships I’ve made — I wouldn’t have experienced this anywhere else.”


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