Background: Nurses are supposed to meet patients with sensitivity, empathy and understanding, and there is thus a need for knowledge related to how nursing students develop empathy in relation to vulnerable patients.

Aim: To explore characteristics of clinical situations in which third-year students felt that they were personally affected, with the potential to develop mature empathy.

Method: In-depth qualitative interviews with seven third-year students.

Results: The study shows various examples of clinical situations where the students were emotionally affected. Simultaneously they seem to have an openness that allows them to identify with patients in vulnerable situations. These experiences contributed to personal maturity and awareness of inequalities and power relations in patient-nurse relationships.

Conclusion: Mature empathy requires that students reflect on experiences where emotions are combined with knowledge, and with insight into how norms, routines and framework conditions in the healthcare system influence actions and attitudes.

Keywords: empathy, nurse education, nursing students, qualitative method, vulnerable patients