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The Road to 50 Years

By Whitney Heins

This year, the College of Nursing turns 50. It would be nearly impossible to quantify the profound impact it has had on the community, state, and world.

And the future is bright for the next half-century, with a new building on the horizon opening opportunities to educate more high-caliber nurses and conduct more transformational research.

A look back

Since the very beginning, there has been a demand for Tennessee nurses, and the College of Nursing has done its best to fulfill that demand.

The college opened its doors in 1971 after the state legislature determined a need for a nursing college in East Tennessee. At the time, there was only one public nursing college in all of Tennessee—and it was on the other side of the state.

The fledgling college recruited the esteemed Sylvia Hart, associate dean for undergraduate nursing programs at the State University of New York in Buffalo (now the University at Buffalo) to be at the helm. During her 21 years as dean, Hart established a strong foundation for the college, launching its bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD programs.

“She was the kind of transformational leader who commanded such respect from faculty that we always willingly followed along during the addition of those new programs,” said Sandra Thomas, who helped create the PhD program and serves as chair.

The program, instituted in 1989, aimed to fill the need for nurses and conduct life-changing nursing science research. From its inception, nursing doctoral students crossed disciplinary lines to collaborate with colleagues across campus. Research areas have ranged from the effects of human touch on preterm infants to the effects of fatigue on cancer patients to helping Iraqi refugees resettle in America.

When Joan Creasia became dean in 1995, a shortage of skilled nurses was looming. In response, she obtained additional funding to expand or add several programs, including the Doctor of Nursing Practice and RN to BSN programs.

“There was an increased need for BSN and advanced practice nurses, as patients were in the hospital for shorter periods of time and needed follow-up care after discharge. But home health nurses, nurse practitioners, and primary care nurses were in short supply,” Creasia explained.

The college worked hard to grow and add as many nurses to the workforce as it could with the space and faculty it had.

A current look

When Victoria Niederhauser became dean in 2011, she continued Creasia’s efforts to fill the nursing gap by growing student enrollment from 420 undergraduates and 129 graduate students in 2011 to the current level of 760 undergraduates and 183 graduate students. The number of faculty members teaching these students also grew, from 53 in 2011 to 113 today.

Research impact

Niederhauser’s focus on experiential simulation learning, including the cutting-edge Health Innovation and Technology (HITS) Lab and nursing science research, has enriched the work of the college’s students and faculty.

In the HITS lab, educators provide students with real-life learning opportunities while researchers engage in health care innovation to improve the quality of life.

“We are providing the workforce for the future, but we are also exploring issues that improve health and health care through nursing science and discovery,” explained Niederhauser.

For example, research into neonates is uncovering how certain exposures in the NICU can lead to hearing loss. Other research is revealing how to delay the onset of dementia and protect the mental health of family caregivers. New research collaborations will investigate the role of the microbiome in the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease as well as mental health and the neurodevelopment of children.

The college’s administration, faculty, and staff have worked to create a supportive environment for research and scholarly activity, attracting $2.9 million in extramural funding during the fiscal year 2021. The college also now has a record eight faculty members who are American Academy of Nursing fellows—the highest honor in the nursing profession—and seven others with national academy appointments. The DNP program’s US News & World Report ranking among public institutions has jumped from the 50s to 38th over the past several years.

Student impact

The top-caliber faculty means the college is producing top-caliber students. Graduates have a 98.5 percent pass rate on the National Council Licensure Exam, the highest in a decade and far surpassing the state and national average. What’s more, they are highly sought after for nursing jobs, in large part due to the real-world experience they obtain in the program.

For example, a curriculum change incorporated an academic service-learning component in which juniors and seniors participate in 30 hours of service–learning each semester with one of more than 40 community partner agencies. Last year alone, undergraduate nursing students conducted about 17,000 hours of service in the community. Their work culminates with a senior research project that improves the quality of service for the agency.

“We got our students involved in this work after we heard from acute hospital clinical partners that they needed new graduated nurses with stronger soft skills such as communication, innovation, and leadership,” said Shelia Swift, assistant dean for undergraduate programs. “So now the students have the opportunity to gain those skills while helping improve the services the community agencies provide.”

Local to global impact

In 2015, the college opened its Center for Nursing Practice to address the lack of access to nursing care throughout the state. The self-funded center supports the growth of nurse-managed clinics, community outreach, collaboration, and education of health care professionals and nurse leaders in the state and beyond.

During the pandemic, the skills and compassion of students and faculty were profoundly felt—and needed.

“We didn’t hesitate to help,” said Niederhauser. “We said yes when asked. We volunteered when we knew a community partner had a need.”

Nursing students and faculty gave more than 26,000 vaccines this year on campus and in various health care and community settings. They performed COVID-19 saliva testing and contact tracing for students on campus, screened employees on football Saturdays, and worked additional hours in hospitals needing coverage.

The college’s commitment to service stretches around the globe. Students have participated in service-learning projects in rural communities in Costa Rica and Belize. Faculty have traveled to Kenya to conduct the Helping Babies Breathe program, training 60 health care workers and midwives in an underresourced area to do infant resuscitation. The program has already saved many lives, and plans are in the works for students to join in the future.

A look forward

While the college has had an enormous impact over the past 50 years, its work is limited by the size of its physical space. The current 42,000-square-foot nursing building was adequate in 1971, but with the tremendous growth of faculty, staff, and students it’s now dramatically undersized.

“Faculty share office space, students have no place to study or interact, and as the college has grown to fill the nursing gap it has been splintered into other buildings across campus,” said Niederhauser. The state has recognized the need for a larger facility for the college since the 1990s, but numerous roadblocks—most recently, the pandemic—have delayed a solution.

A new home

Beginning next year, Niederhauser will finally be able to oversee the realization of a new nursing building that will allow the college to educate more nurses, cultivate more collaboration, and conduct more life-changing research.

The new facility is made possible by Sara Croley (BSN ’00) and her husband, Ross. The couple committed $7.5 million to the college, the largest gift in its history, for the facility and the Sara Rosenbalm Croley Endowed Dean’s Chair.

“Having worked as a nurse for many years, I have cared for people during some of their most difficult moments. Nurses play such an important role in people’s lives,” said Croley. “Ross and I are investing in the future of nursing in Tennessee. We hope this gift opens a door of opportunity for many more amazing nurses to enter the workforce.”

Construction on the renovated and expanded building, projected to be approximately 100,000 square feet, is slated to begin in 2022 and be completed in three years. The new facility will house enhanced simulation and research labs, including the HITS lab, along with dynamic classroom environments and student collaboration areas. The $60 million anticipated costs of the project will be funded through a combination of donations and state funds.

“This investment is one that is certain to pay off for Tennessee, with more than half of our graduates staying in the state to work after graduation,” said Niederhauser. She said she has prioritized a new building since she arrived at UT, and she’s excited about the opportunities for research and community.

“What I want is to have a sense of what it means to be a Volunteer nurse—to stand in the shadows and give light to others. What I want is when you walk in the doors, you know you are at Tennessee nursing,” she said.

The College of Nursing has much to look forward to as it celebrates its 50th anniversary over the next year, ending with a celebratory gala in 2022. At long last it will have the resources to make the positive impact it is capable of—in the community, in Tennessee, and beyond.

The best is yet to come.

CONTACT:

Kara Clark Cardwell (kmclark2@utk.edu, 865-974-9498)