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From culinary arts to clinical settings: Nontraditional WVU student finds her calling as a nurse in adulthood

Petra Vasale Petra Vasale

When Petra Vasale was choosing her career path in high school, she had two clear role models: her father, who was a small business owner and phenomenal cook, or her mother, who was a labor and delivery nurse at Charleston Area Medical Center.

“My mom passed away when I was 17,” Vasale shared. “From the time I was in eighth grade, she was diagnosed with cancer a couple times.”

At the time, the sting of her loss was too fresh to follow her mother’s footsteps, so the Charleston native moved to Kentucky to pursue degrees in Culinary Arts and Baking and Pastry. After graduating, she worked at several locations as a pastry chef. She then returned home to open custom cake shop, which was in business for six years.

But as the years passed, Vasale felt she had missed her calling. She decided to enroll at the  West Virginia University  School of Nursing  Beckley Campus.

“This time, going back to college for me… I always get emotional when I say it, but I want to help somebody on the worst day of their life,” Vasale said. “It sucks being in the hospital. It sucks not to feel good. But beyond the medicine, you have to have people to care.”

Vasale said she now has the emotional maturity and life experience she that she just didn’t have in her 20s: “It’s the right time for me. I feel like it’s my time to help.”

She attributes her success in part to being surrounded by a supportive network of family and friends, including her fiancé, her 13-year-old daughter, and two bonus daughters. She is also grateful for the tight knit Beckley campus.

“My professors are like, ‘Rock on. Please keep going.’ They are so supportive.”

Vasale said she found the Beckley Campus accessible as a nontraditional student for scheduling, commuting and clinical activities.

“I’ve always enjoyed a smaller community of people,” Vasale said. “You get a chance to really get to know your professor and have better connections with the people in your classes. I never felt like I had to compete for attention or answers or clarity because there were too many people.”

Her professors have also gone “above and beyond” to ensure she had access to any content she missed while her daughter was sick or navigating online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. She describes the Beckley Campus community as “tight-knit, welcoming, supportive and understanding.”

Vasale has truly made the most of her second-degree experience. She volunteered at multiple fundraising events, as well as COVID testing events and vaccination clinics. She joined the swim team, which competed at a national level. She was even crowned homecoming royalty.

“Our senior class is very tight knit. They call me Mama P,” she said with a laugh. “Now they call me Queen P.”

As time has passed, Vasale has been able to reflect fondly on the memories of her mother’s profession.

“I remember I got to go to work with her and I gave out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to new moms,” Vasale said. “The smiles on people’s faces were incredible. Watching not just her, but the people she worked with, it was great knowing they had the ability to make people really happy.”

She’s still in touch with many of her mom’s friends and former colleagues, one of whom was in the hospital when Vasale had her daughter.

“She and a couple other nurses were so sweet to me. They took up a collection to buy me a breast pump because I had a milk supply issue. They offered day and night counseling and support. I never felt alone, no matter what. When you have a good nurse, you treasure them.”

As a student, Vasale was moved by the compassion she saw during her clinical experiences. While she is unsure exactly what nursing path she plans to take, she knows she has endless possibilities ahead.

“I fell in love with open heart surgery. To see someone’s livelihood in the open, in the hands of other people, I was wide eyed the whole time.” She said she also enjoyed talking to patients in psychiatric units.

“Making connections — that’s what’s really important,” Vasale said. “It’s also important that nurses help educate patients about what’s going on. It’s OK to have a bad day. It’s OK to be upset or scared, but it’s important for them to know they’re not alone.”

Vasale plans to work in the Charleston or Beckley area, possibly in critical care. She’s also interested in pursuing graduate level nursing education with the  Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist program.

“Having been a small business owner, I wouldn’t mind going into a management position either, but I want that bedside experience first. I think it’s unfair for administrators to have zero knowledge of nursing in the trenches. I want to advocate for nurses to live better lives and have better working experiences through the state legislature and through administrators.”

Vasale’s other noteworthy accomplishments include inclusion on the Dean’s and President’s Lists, as well as receipt of the Hazel Johnson Nursing Scholarship. She has also been nominated for the Presidential Leadership Award.