Nurse scientist and educator Dean Susan Gennaro reflects on shaping the Connell School.
So, for nearly two decades, Gennaro focused on her work as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and at New York University. She built an international reputation as a nurse scientist and a standout professor and mentor. She received nationally funded research grants and published in peer-reviewed journals.
But as her professional career flourished, she became increasingly aware she needed to nourish what she was called to do. And in 2008, when Gennaro received an offer to become dean of the Connell School of Nursing (CSON) at Boston College, she saw an opportunity to reconcile her vocational and spiritual ideals with an institution that shared them.
Now, after 13 years as CSON dean, Gennaro will step down from the post on June 30, with Katherine Gregory starting in July as the new dean. She will take a sabbatical to spend time with family (including her husband of 40-plus years, retired CSON faculty member William Fehder), then return to the nursing school faculty to teach and continue her scholarly research. She spoke with Voice this winter about her tenure and key issues of the nursing profession.
For the longest time, I said I didn’t want to be a dean. I was never going to be a dean. And my husband, if he were sitting next to me right now, would say, “Except if it were Boston College.” That’s true. I was coming from elite research institutions, so that level of academic excellence was important to me. But the missing piece was the mission and values that I’d grown up with and that were a defining part of my Jesuit, Catholic education. I’d always seen Boston College as a place that could bring those two pieces together.
I’m proud that I came in as a stranger and sat down with faculty and asked them three key questions: What do you value so much that you’d like it to remain? What would you like changed? What resources do you need to do your job? At the time, the University had just gone through a strategic planning process to map out the next 10 years. So—after listening to the faculty and reflecting on my strengths in diversity, global health, and research—I thought about how CSON could fit into and advance the greater University strategy. I knew I needed to use the skills that God gave me to bring the Connell School together as a community before we could move forward. Addressing the concerns of faculty was critical to that process, because one can’t lead where no one will follow.
Global experiences expose our students to new perspectives. Through dialogue and debate, our students have an opportunity to engage in novel ways of thinking. These types of interactions are a vital component in educating the next generation of nurse leaders.
When we started our global strategic effort, we had one trip—to Nicaragua. We’ve since expanded the number of international service and community health learning experiences to seven. All students get some academic credit—course credit for undergraduates and clinical hours for graduate students—for what they’re doing abroad. We purposely did that so there would be undergraduate and graduate students working together and learning from each other.
I’ve been able to go with other Boston College faculty to Ecuador, Jamaica, Lourdes, and other places I wouldn’t have otherwise. The trip to Nicaragua I took through Intersections [a University Mission and Ministry program] in 2014 was life changing. I was able to talk with women who had been illiterate and who, with the great literacy campaign there, were taught to read. The historic changes that this movement made were incredible.
Being someplace where my personal values match the institution’s values, and where we really believe in humanity, matters to me.
When I started on July 1, 2008, I learned that the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN) had scheduled a meeting in Boston later that month, and I said, “Great. We’ll have a reception.” The Connell School didn’t yet have a tradition of this type of community engagement. But the idea was accepted and we did have a reception. And through that small step, we went on to build and maintain an important relationship with NAHN that became the catalyst for our KILN program, which prepares students from backgrounds underrepresented in nursing. In fact, one of the new assistant professors we’ve hired this year is a fabulous funded researcher and a KILN graduate. So, although we have much more to do, we are proud to see some of our early work coming full circle.
We’ve also moved forward on diversity and inclusion through an ongoing process of self-ref lection. We take the time to look at ourselves objectively, improve our strategies, and have conversations that are not always easy. In 2016–2017, we conducted a faculty and staff examination of institutional diversity. It found that as a school, we weren’t so comfortable talking about race. We wanted everybody to love each other. But what we learned is that we have to have those difficult conversations—because you can’t know somebody else’s experience if you’re not willing to talk about it. And of course, it’s not just about race; it’s about all kinds of ways in which we categorize people as “other.”
We may always have been welcoming and loving at the Connell School, but we didn’t know a lot of the nitty-gritty of what it takes to be inclusive. We have many students who are less advantaged than others. I had to ask myself, What do I need to put in place so that their intelligence can shine and they’re not facing barriers that other students don’t? Now we have great programs to help everyone succeed, and to support our students who need help with time management, tutoring, and class expenses.
We have put in place so many resources to make sure faculty have financial support and time for research. For example, we created start-up packages for new faculty and new assistant professors that include money to do that first study. We also provide six paid summer months after you come so you don’t have to write grant proposals over the summer on your own time. We decreased teaching responsibilities in the first years so you have time to start a research team and seek out collaborators. We started funding our doctoral students so they can work with faculty who are conducting research. And we have hired lots of great people.
Our faculty members are doing very important, clinically focused research that is helping people make better choices and live healthier lives. There is more research happening now than when I started, and the discipline as a whole has changed to value research more. I think being a role model and continuing to do my own research has been important too.
They’ve changed tremendously—and for the better. One of my early jobs as a nurse was in South Carolina, in a hospital neonatal intensive care unit. When physicians came into the room, you got up and gave them your seat. Those days are long over.
The fact that Massachusetts Governor Baker on New Year’s Day signed legislation allowing nurse practitioners to practice independently says a lot. I don’t know if people were as comfortable with nurse practitioners 13 years ago, but now you see on advertisements, “Talk to your provider.” They don’t say, “Talk to your doctor” all the time. That’s a huge, huge change.
People like nurses, but they have never fully understood what nurses do. I think that with COVID-19, people see us in a very different light. They see nurses working as part of a team in the ICU and being the ones on the phone with the family as somebody is dying. They see how smart you have to be as a nurse. It’s not considered just a “handmaid” role anymore.
We’re still a very homogenous profession; approximately 12–13 percent of all U.S. nurses are men. We have a lot of men at the Connell School, and we want to support them. This is another question of diversity and inclusivity, right? Nurses need to mirror the populations they serve.
Another challenge is thinking about how we standardize the baseline for entering nursing practice. Research shows that hospitals with more baccalaureate-prepared nurses [compared to RNs without a college degree] have better outcomes. At the Connell School, we consistently ensure that our baccalaureate curriculum prepares our graduates well. In addition, we began our Doctor of Nursing Practice program in 2019 to equip nurse practitioners with the skills they’ll need for the future. It’s not just about improving your own clinical practice, it’s about leading change in health care systems.
Nursing must also take a deep look at our clinical models of teaching. Our profession is unique because so much of it requires experiential learning. We have to educate nursing students in a way that truly prepares them for the range of scenarios they’ll face in their careers. The days in which you could have a preceptor to follow around aren’t going to last. There’s just so much efficiency built into systems now, and taking time to teach students—regardless of how important that is—slows down that efficiency. There will be new models for clinical training. That’s part of why I was thrilled when CSON moved from Cushing to Maloney Hall in 2015. We have a much better simulation center along with beautiful meeting spaces, offices, and common spaces. We’re adapting to the best models of education and experiential learning so that our students will be ready to navigate complex health systems and effect change in ethical and meaningful ways.
If you’re going to be a leader anywhere, you have to understand the organization’s mission and values. I had a very good friend from my days at Penn whose husband died. So I went down to spend some time with her. She said, “Susan, how can you be here? You’re a dean.” And I said, “Let me tell you something. If [Boston College President] Father Leahy called my administrative assistant and asked where I was and she said, “She’s comforting a grieving widow,” he would say, “Good.” Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Being someplace where my personal values match the institution’s values, and where we really believe in humanity, matters to me.
People like nurses, but they have never really understood what nurses do. I think that with COVID-19, people see us in a very different light.
I will always remember the resilience everyone has shown, but also the toll that the pandemic has taken—especially on mental health. It has certainly been stressful, and isolation and stress have a cost.
I also remember the pervasive fear last spring, and driving around to deliver KN95 masks to our faculty who were working in clinical settings in Boston. Nurses worked in places around the country where there was no PPE [personal protective equipment], and you were just expected to do what you needed to do. You were putting your life on the line. We are happy to be your heroes, not happy to be your martyrs.
Yes, but 13 years is a good amount of time. We know that organizations do well with changes in leadership, because people bring different strengths and ideas and strategies. It was a very deliberative process, thinking about what was best for the school, for me personally, and for my family.
Being a dean is very time-consuming. You are a first responder. When something happens, you get called first and have to deal with it. Being a dean with an R01 [her ongoing NIH-funded study on prenatal care for minority women] is even more time-consuming. I’m also editor of the Journal of Nursing Scholarship.
I will continue to do research. I will continue to write. I will continue to teach. I want to mentor young faculty. But I will not have to spend a huge amount of time working on the weekends when my grandchildren want to go to the zoo.
I believe the world is a better place because of Boston College. I really hope that the next dean enjoys her time as much as I’ve enjoyed mine. It has been the most fun.