A Conversation with Graceland’s Deans of the School of Nursing
" It takes gutsy people to be nurses."
- Margaret McKevit
It’s impossible to talk about the history of Graceland’s nursing program without mentioning Margaret McKevit ’55, Graceland’s first chair of the nursing division and the one person who probably had more to do with its initiation as a baccalaureate program in the 1968-69 school year than anyone.
McKevit’s name is all over the nursing program, including as the namesake for McKevit Manor, the “House” all nursing students have been a part of since 1970. Her memory of that early time is sharp, and she easily recalls the names of students and faculty members in conversation with the Horizons team.
“The students who entered the program in 1968 had enough faith to take the risk,” McKevit remembers. “It takes gutsy people to be nurses, and those first students and faculty members were gutsy.”
McKevit’s tenure with Graceland lasted from 1966 to 1976 when she left to join the faculty at Louisiana State University. She served on Graceland’s Board of Trustees from 1980 to 1994, and she served for six years on the board at the San. However, McKevit’s involvement did not end there, and her tenacity, which led to the program’s success, is evident in her passion for Graceland’s School of Nursing even now.
Graceland’s School of Nursing leadership added a few new faces in 2018. Despite the newness to their roles, these three women have decades of experience as nurses and educators, and their leadership will continue to help position Graceland nursing students to be among the most sought-after in the country. The Horizons team sat down with Sharon Little-Stoetzel, RN, PhD, CCRP; Jolene Lynn, RN, PhD; and Michele Gerdes, RN, MSN, CNE, to talk about their own history as well as their vision for the future of nursing at Graceland.
The newest face in the group is Michele Gerdes, associate dean of undergraduate programs for the School of Nursing. Gerdes is a second-degree nurse with a background in human resources and finance. She joined Graceland last May and is currently pursuing her Doctor of Education in Nursing Education. She is soft-spoken and thoughtful, and she brings a new perspective to the program.
As a nurse and then a nurse educator in the Kansas City area, Gerdes became aware of Graceland long before she joined the staff. “I came here to do some of my educator practicum hours with Dr. (Barb) Voshall and Dean (Sharon) Little-Stoetzel,” Gerdes remembers, “and I wanted to be on the faculty ever since — the faculty here have a great reputation of working really well together.”
The excellence and collegial nature of Graceland’s faculty is something all three deans agree on. Lynn is in her second year on the School of Nursing faculty and her first as the associate dean of graduate programs. She knew retired dean Claudia Horton as well as several other faculty members. “In the interview, everyone was so welcoming and I really liked that,” she said.
Little-Stoetzel’s time at Graceland dates back to the late 1990s. “We had just moved here, and I met Carol Goodyear-Bruch who told me, ‘You’ve gotta come teach at Graceland.’ I really wanted to teach in a BSN program, and that was the first I’d ever heard of Graceland,” Little-Stoetzel recounts. “And when I met Sherri (Kirkpatrick, former vice president and dean of the School of Nursing), I thought to myself, ‘Now this is the dean I want to work for.’”
Little-Stoetzel has been with Graceland since 1998, save a three-year hiatus, and remembers Graceland’s pre-internet distance learning nursing program, which started under Kirkpatrick in 1988.
“I had my gradebook on a floppy disk,” she laughs. “Every day, you would go to the mailroom and get your stack of exams to grade. I tell you, I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t live it myself.” But Kirkpatrick’s vision paired with the leadership of then-president Barbara Higdon positioned Graceland as one of the national leaders in developing nurses.
Gerdes came from a competitor school and recounted, “We always knew that our main competition was Graceland, and it was really difficult to compete because the students are known for their character — how much they really care about people in general, how well they give holistic care to patients, how they interact with the staff. I can pretty much point them out when I walk onto a floor. They always have the highest grades, the highest NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) scores. They were the ones to aspire to be.”
Little-Stoetzel attributes the history of student success to the faculty’s support for each other and their ability to work together. “We focus not only on students passing their certifications and licensing exams — which is very important, they have to get their license — but we also make sure that we produce good nurses.”
What makes a good nurse?
The current deans gave several answers: Good nurses need to be able to think for themselves, need to communicate, need to know their resources and need to make their patients feel safe. They all also indicated that one of the most important aspects is INTERPERSONAL SKILLS. That’s what patients remember.
As the nursing profession has progressed over the decades, the emphasis has changed due to an aging population and the need for nurses to simply know more. “New graduates today are probably handling the same kinds of stressors and factors that seasoned critical care nurses handled maybe 30 years ago,” Gerdes stated.
The need for a flexible learning environment has positioned Graceland well as a nimble organization that helps prepare students for a society in desperate need of experienced nurses, especially in the acute care (hospital) environment.
Lynn stated, “I think in 2008, when the economy tanked, nursing became really popular again. There was job security. But when the economy improved — nursing is still mostly women, something like 93 percent are women — women had other choices rather than being nurses, so I think that it changed back.”
The rapid changes in society and the increasing connectedness of technology opens up potential for new opportunities in telehealth and other new avenues. Gerdes said the new generation of nurses are well-positioned for these advancements because of their experience interacting with technology. “They’ll be better at reading people’s body language over the internet by maybe seeing little micro- expressions that we might not see because we’re not used to doing that all the time,” she said.
But even with those changes in technology and environments, interpersonal skills remain one of the most important competencies that nurses need. Lynn says it very simply: “Nursing is very personal.”
Little-Stoetzel concluded, “That’s what people want: good nurses are ones who have interpersonal skills. That’s what patients value. Despite all evidence to the contrary, nursing is a caring profession, and we are a key in the health care system.”
Gerdes finished, “We have the potential to drive those health care teams in that direction nationally and globally. We really can be the leaders in health care if we want to be.”
The first-time NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) pass rate for students in Graceland's nursing program.