"We all have something we're meant to do," said DeNino, winner of the Rev. Edward H. Finnegan, SJ, Award as the graduating senior who best exemplifies the spirit of the University's motto "Ever to Excel" by demonstrating excellence, humility, and service to others.
"It's kind of my calling. I'm good at connecting with people, comforting people, making them feel better. It makes me feel good about myself. Why do anything else?"
DeNino cringes a bit at the publicity that attended her donation of a kidney last December to save the life of a 23-year-old friend, Alex Phillips, of Tolland, Conn., who suffered from a rare degenerative kidney disorder.
She tried to downplay news of her winning the Finnegan Award, but her friends in the School of Nursing had other ideas: A placard in the Cushing Hall lobby proudly announces that one of the school's own has won the top undergraduate prize given at Commencement. [Other Finnegan Award candidates profiled]
"I'm not one to bring a lot of attention to myself," said DeNino in an interview last week. "I know it's not bragging, but it feels a little bit like it is."
Jennifer DeNino, winner of the 2001 Rev. Edward Finnegan, SJ, Award. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
SON Associate Dean Loretta Higgins was more forthright in a Finnegan Award nomination letter that praised DeNino as "an exceptional person who has excelled in the areas of academics, leadership and generosity."
Higgins noted DeNino ranks fourth in her class, and as a volunteer with the Academic Development Center, has tutored peers in at least half the courses in the nursing curriculum.
It was not unusual to find DeNino explaining difficult concepts in impromptu tutoring sessions in the cafeteria or hockey rink, the dean wrote. DeNino's gifts were such that she needed only three sessions to save one fellow student from failing pharmacology.
"She is probably responsible for the academic success of countless students, and in turn, for the improved care they give their patients," Higgins wrote.
DeNino's kidney donation to save a friend, wrote the dean, was a "truly selfless act" that epitomized "the generosity of spirit...apparent in all that Jennifer does."
DeNino spent a semester abroad studying nursing and Aboriginal culture in Australia, and was so taken with the experience she plans to return next February for a year-long stay as a nurse in a city hospital in Melbourne.
She plans a career working with acutely ill patients as a critical-care nurse. Service in the intensive-care unit requires the nurse to maintain close relationships with individual patients while being "very vigilant," DeNino said.
"It's high intensity and always keeps you on your toes. It's mentally and physically challenging, and I like that."
Her own experience during the kidney transplant procedure last year gave her valuable perspective on what it's like to be a hospital patient, said DeNino.
"It's very enlightening when you're the one constantly poked and prodded and awakened every two hours," she said. "I now have a lot more respect for the patient - and for the nurses."
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