Senior Named Outstanding Student Nurse of South Dakota

Augustana University Eric Vander Lee, recipient of the Student Nurse of South Dakota award

Senior Eric Vander Lee has biked around the country to raise money for people with multiple sclerosis – twice. He's also researching ways his nursing and Spanish majors can improve the hospital experience for non-English speakers. Qualities like this earned him recognition as the Outstanding Student Nurse of South Dakota by the Nursing Student Association of South Dakota.

The award was presented at the 2016 annual State Nursing Convention of South Dakota, held Feb. 26-28, in Yankton. The honor recognizes academic excellence; the ability to work well in team relationships; the ability to recognize and meet physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs of patients; demonstrated sense of responsibility in carrying out nursing assignments; knowledge of current events; and the possession of a range of interests beyond nursing.

A Sioux Falls native, Vander Lee was selected from seven candidates from nursing schools across South Dakota, each nominated by faculty members from their respective nursing departments.

We caught up with Vander Lee to learn more about his interest in nursing, his plans for the future, and what inspires him to lead a life of service.

Q. What inspired you to pursue a career in nursing?

A. There were so many reasons I chose to go into nursing. One of the biggest is that I love to be around and work with people. I also have a knack for science and mathematics and felt that nursing was a great way to combine these skills. I currently work as a nurse aide on a surgical floor at Sanford. One thing I've come to realize in my work is that my job is a huge privilege and incredibly rewarding. Working in nursing, I never have to wonder whether my daily work makes a difference. Oftentimes, I'll be helping a patient with a bath or washing their hair and they'll confide in me about their biggest struggles. It's an incredible thing to find yourself in a position where someone trusts you on such a profound level.

"While I give to my patients, they give back to me. They hold me accountable to my morals and make me the person I want to be. I've held the hands of small babies who have just been born. I've also held the hands of patients as they take their last breath. To be present in these moments is the closest thing to sacred that I've been able to find."

— Augustana Senior Eric Vander Lee
Double Major in Nursing and Spanish

I also love the challenge and diversity of nursing. I'm the type of guy who would be absolutely miserable in a desk job. Nursing lets me be on my feet, solve challenging problems, and serve others. All this is in addition to the seemingly infinite avenues that are present in nursing for career and education advancement. I could go on and on!

Q. You've done a lot of work to raise funds for MS research through bicycling. Can you share why you work to support this important cause? And some of the projects you've been involved with?

A. In the summer of 2014, I cycled 4,295 miles from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Seattle, Washington. The team I cycled with raised more than $100,000 for MS research and service projects. I enjoyed it so much, I did it again in 2015. My second cross country ride was 3,785 miles long and took me from Yorktown, Virginia, to San Francisco, California. In 2015, my teammates and I raised more than $180,000!

In addition to making people's homes and bathrooms more accessible, we funded world-class research and met dozens of incredible people living with MS. I love the idea of doing something big and pushing past my limits. I've seen hundreds of small towns, cycled through 24 states, and experienced amazing hospitality along these journeys. My horizons were very much expanded in the process. I think attempting something that sounds a bit too challenging is great for the human mind. It's thinking like this that gets us to the moon (and back), allows us to invent new things, and makes the world better overall. I ride for the many friends I have who are affected by the disease. I'm also optimistic that in the future, better treatments will be discovered and eventually a cure will be found. For those who want to learn more, visit!

Q. You already have a nursing position secured for after graduation! Can you tell us about it?

A. I was honored to be offered an RN position at Sanford Health last November through the Partners in Nursing (PIN) program. One of the amazing things about being a PIN RN is that I have the opportunity to do nursing research at Sanford in addition to working as a nurse. When my research is complete, I will have the opportunity to present my findings to administrators and advocate for policy changes based on my findings.

In addition to my work in nursing, I'm also completing a Spanish major. One of my goals is to increase the quality of care that we give to patients who don't speak English. My research is still in the developmental stage, and I will be working on this project for the next year or so. I hope to use my skills as a bilingual nurse to make the hospital safer and less frightening for non-English speaking patients.