Case studies of Dutch nursing students are the focus of this longitudinal study. An ethno-methodological approach shows how student nurses made sense of their reality and dealt with situations encountered during the program. The cases are examined within the auto-ethnography of the researcher’s role as a nurse, an educator and a researcher. The study highlights the interface between sociology and education, and between power and authority. The research highlights student awareness regarding the challenges of practice and indicates that students use preconceived strategies to negotiate their way through their placements. A student, who dropped out of the program, provides a ‘deviant’ case study. The researcher analyses and discusses the concept of ‘deviance’, questioning the appropriateness of this terminology. This narrative account invites the reader to follow the researcher’s thoughts and decision-making whilst it simultaneously challenges the reader to confront their personal history and beliefs.