DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Just more than a year ago, many nursing students couldn’t have imagined that group photos would be gone and smiles would be covered up with masks.

“People are like, ‘I don’t want to work in the COVID unit,’ and I’m like, ‘I volunteer as tribute.’ Because someone has to do it, and I’m that person who’s willing to go in,” said Jessica Jones.

Jones is a North Carolina Central University senior. She was determined to be on the front lines as a student on the floor of Duke Hospital while working full-time as a CNA at UNC Hospital, and as her own son contracted COVID-19.

So, when she became eligible to get the vaccine, she signed up immediately.

“I still have to wear an N-95 (mask) if there’s anything respiratory going on, a regular mask, and goggles at all times.”

Nursing students are also tested every two weeks.

Students aren’t required to be vaccinated, but the Chair of the Nursing Department, Professor Yolanda VanRiel, strongly encouraged those who have concerns to get it.

“That was one of the reasons that I wanted to receive the vaccine because then I can talk from experience with my students, such as Jessica, who can also talk with her classmates about the experience,” she said.

Most generations read about what it is like to work in the middle of a pandemic. These students are living it.

“They have definitely increased public awareness of the contribution that nurses and nursing students can make in providing care for individuals families and communities,” VanRiel said.

Jessica, whose son is now recovered and graduates in May, is only more determined.

“I can see firsthand what these patients go through. I can see how they deteriorate or get better, and seeing all of that makes me want to help even more. Seeing that makes me want to go out there and save as many lives as I possibly can,” she said.