Introduction: How student nurses are permitted to participate in healthcare settings during placements is central to their skill development, formation of occupational identity and retention in nursing. Novices' participation and learning was mapped through their clinical experiences from student to graduate, as part of a multi-method longitudinal study examining nurses' workplace learning. Methods: Twenty-nine second and third year nursing students participated in a series of interviews over a two year period. Six students, representing a cross-section of a student cohort form the basis of this case study. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and thematically coded. Results: Four themes encapsulating the participants' journeys through clinical situations were identified; (a) creating learning opportunities, (b) gaining independence, (c) becoming part of the team and (d) generational differences. The themes reflect the development of novice nurses and the nuances of the workplace as a learning environment. Discussion: The cases highlight the importance of supportive placements that comprise openness with opportunities, tolerance of inter-generational differences and invitations to become part of the nursing team. The challenge for nurse educators is how to best prepare students for the complexities of the social, cultural and political arena of clinical practice.