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Graduating Inverness student has her sights set on an army career

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Niki Spence with Zambian children

More than a hundred student nurses will gather in Inverness for the University of Stirling Graduation Ceremony, which takes place on Friday 5 November at St Andrew’s Cathedral. When the event begins at midday, it will symbolise the next step on a career path for most of the students – one of whom at least has very definite ideas about her future direction.

At 25, Niki Spence (pictured), who will be collecting her BSc in Adult Nursing, spent much of the last five years working for Highland Council as a social care worker. However her sights have always been set on an army nursing career. “I’m determined to go into the Army because the sort of nursing I most enjoyed during my degree placements was in acute medical departments or in A&E,” explains Niki, who hails from Inverness, but has lived in Lerwick. “I really want that particular kind of nursing experience – and there’s no better environment than the Army in which to experience it.”

The next army recruitment intake is in February and Niki is already working on her fitness levels, in preparation for the mandatory one-and-a-half mile run, as well as moving between distance markers carrying full jerry cans. While that sounds tough, Niki insists it could be worse: “If you apply for entry at officer level, you’ve got to manage 50 sit-ups and 21 press-ups – both exercises to be completed inside two minutes!”

Should she be successful in February, Niki would go on to do a 14 week basic training course, which all soldiers must undergo and which is designed to be test even the strongest and fittest of applicants. The prospect sounds pretty tough – even for a woman who has recently returned from voluntary work in Africa.

Niki was one of a group of students who this year raised thousands of pounds to finance voluntary work in Zambia and Ghana. In March, she flew to Lusaka with three other University of Stirling student nurses and they spent six weeks working in the area.

“For me, the best bit was working with kids in a local orphanage and listening to their stories – some of which were really gut-wrenching and heartbreaking,” she remembers. “It was amazing to see the difficulties which very young people overcame and how positive their attitude still was.

“Altogether, my time in Zambia was an experience that no amount of advance warning could have prepared me for.  I remember we were touring a hospital and when we got to the children’s cancer ward, a young mother stood up and tried to give her child to us. Because we were foreign, she assumed we had to be rich and could do something to help her.  It was a dreadful feeling, having to just walk away from them both.

“By the time I got back home in April, I was quite worried that I wouldn’t be able to step back into my old life – I’d been so affected by what I had seen. But eventually I realised that Zambia is Zambia, Scotland is Scotland and there isn’t much you can do to change each country’s reality. “

Speaking of her hopes of an army nursing career, Niki acknowledges that military life isn’t without its dangers. “I might be posted to somewhere like Afghanistan and of course friends and family have pointed out the dangers that would pose.

“I realise that saying this might make me sound naïve – or perhaps insensitive to the sacrifices of others – but I would see working in Afghanistan as a challenge and something to get excited about, rather than something to be afraid of. After all, nurses out there are just helping soldiers, they’re caring for civilians as well. And the experience I would get would be invaluable; not only professionally but in many other ways.”

However, she is cheered by the fact that there are other far-flung postings: “Wherever there is a humanitarian crisis, the army is likely to send troops to assist. Right now, they are operating in Belize, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Cyprus, Germany, Canada….offering great opportunities for working overseas.”

As for her coming graduation, Niki admits it feels quite surreal. “After three years of work, I can’t quite believe that I’ve done it, it’s over and I’m going to graduate. My mum and dad will be coming to see me capped and my little brother is paying for my gown hire as a gift.”

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