Natalya Zuyevych was juggling a lot that morning.

It was the first day she had to take her Community College of Philadelphia nursing class online after the coronavirus all but closed the campus. She had just learned that her uncle had died of the virus, and she couldn’t reach her aunt, who also had it. And her infant, sick with an ear infection, screamed all night and kept her awake. She had to take him to the doctor, and the only time she could get an appointment was during class time.

“You can’t be late for class. You have to be present,” the 31-year-old Northeast Philadelphia woman said. “So I’m trying to Zoom through my phone.”

The challenges just kept mounting for Zuyevych. Her husband, a physical therapist, lost his job in late March. She had been laid off in January, and they were having trouble collecting unemployment, given the overwhelming number of jobless claims.

Many of her 95 nursing classmates, a close-knit group that took many classes and clinicals together over the last two years, faced similar challenges, and all were grieving after losing a classmate, Janette Reyes, after a car accident in early March.

Community college students, many of whom juggle jobs and families and are strapped for cash, dealt with hardships even before the virus’ arrival, said Tamika Curry, assistant professor in the department of nursing.

“Then you add the pandemic on top of that,” she said. “Whatever your challenge was then, it was magnified by a hundred. Then there’s the fact that you had to finish nursing school.”

But on Friday evening, the students will savor the moment when they celebrate their graduation via a Zoom party. Mayor Jim Kenney will deliver prerecorded congratulations to the class on earning associate’s degrees and preparing to enter the city’s fight against the coronavirus.

Temeka Willoughby tested positive for the coronavirus while she completed studies for her nursing degree at Community College of Philadelphia. She also grieved as at least 17 residents at the Philadelphia area nursing home where she works died of the virus.
Courtesy of Temeka Willoughby
Temeka Willoughby tested positive for the coronavirus while she completed studies for her nursing degree at Community College of Philadelphia. She also grieved as at least 17 residents at the Philadelphia area nursing home where she works died of the virus.

"I’ve just been crying tears of joy all day,” said Temeka Willoughby, 46, of Olney.

She was one of three students in the class who tested positive for the coronavirus, and continued her studies while in quarantine. She received her test results while logged into her nursing class.

Like some other students, she’s already a licensed practical nurse, and for the last 12 years has worked in a nursing and rehabilitation center on the outskirts of the city. She watched the virus take its toll: At least 17 residents have succumbed to COVID-19.

“I’ve known some of these people a long time,” she said through tears. “Some of them have been there longer than me. I became family with their family. We were their family.”

Jessica Dorsey explains why she wanted to become a nurse. It started when she was 4 years old. She is one of 96 students who will graduate from Community College of Philadelphia this week.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Jessica Dorsey explains why she wanted to become a nurse. It started when she was 4 years old. She is one of 96 students who will graduate from Community College of Philadelphia this week.

Willoughby also juggled caring for her mother, who doesn’t have full use of her legs. She worried that her mother would contract the virus, too, but she didn’t. Willoughby had minor symptoms, she said. She lost her sense of taste and smell and thought it was allergies.

She hopes to go on for her bachelor’s and master’s, and become a nurse practitioner. In the meantime, she will continue working at the nursing home.

“This is what I signed up for when I got into this field,” she said. “And this is what I’m going to continue to do."

Jessica Dorsey, 30, of Kensington, had been working 12 hours a week as a home health-care aide while in school. Her family was struggling for money and had to move in with her mom. She had to help her son adjust to a new school and handle the death of his dog.

Then her husband, a hotel bell clerk, lost his job because of the virus, and she had to increase her hours, most recently to over 40.

“As soon as I’m finished, I’m going to have a good cry," she said. “I’m in need of one. It’s been really tough.”

Now, she’s ready to celebrate. The Zoom party will temporarily replace the traditional pinning ceremony when new nurses take their oath. (The college plans to hold a real one when it can.)

“This has been very difficult, these last few weeks," Curry said. “These students need some sort of reward.”

Zuyevych said her uncle’s death underscored for her how important nurses are.

“They are the ones who are with these patients,” she said. “They are the last people they see, for the ones who unfortunately don’t recover.”

She hopes to become an operating room nurse. Like her classmates, she will have to take her licensing exam first.

Even though she lost her uncle and has watched her sister-in-law, a doctor, have to scrub down when she comes home before touching her young children, Zuyevych said she’s ready to help patients.

“To be honest,” she said, “I feel that the world needs us now more than ever. So I think it’s perfect we are graduating around this time.”