Dean Susan Gennaro steps down after 13 years leading the Connell School of Nursing and rejoins the faculty after a sabbatical. Photograph: Caitlin Cunningham 

Susan Gennaro never questioned her life’s calling. Her mother was a nurse and so were her two aunts. And her Jesuit, Catholic education inspired her to live a life of service. But the shape her nursing career would take—what type of educator and leader she would become—took longer to determine.

“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.

Q:  Congratulations on your success and accomplishments as Dean. Can you take us back to the beginning of your time at CSON? How does your story begin?

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.

 

Q:  What do you take pride in from those early days as a new dean?

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.

Connell School highlights during Dean Gennaro’s tenure

2020–21

  • The Connell School starts the Mary Mahoney program to provide mentorship, community, and academic support for graduate students of color.

2019

  • The school inaugurates its newest advanced degree program, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).
  • CSON launches Seacole Scholars, a supportive living and learning program for first-year nursing students from backgrounds underrepresented in the nursing field.

2018

  • The National League for Nursing names the Connell School a Center of Excellence in Nursing Education.
  • The school holds its first-ever graduate student retreat, called VITALS.

2017

  • CSON celebrates the 70th anniversary of its founding.
  • Dean Gennaro and her research team receive a $3.3 million grant from NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities to study a prenatal care intervention developed to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress among pregnant minority women.

Q:  One of your strategic goals is to educate nurses to lead in a global world. The Connell School has expanded opportunities for students to train in South America, the Caribbean, and Europe and to study global health issues on campus. Why are these international experiences so important?

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.
Susan Gennaro, Dean, Connell School of Nursing, 2008–2021

Q: Another of your priorities has been to foster a diverse and culturally sensitive faculty, staff, and student body. Under your watch, Connell launched KILN (Keys to Inclusive Leadership in Nursing), the Seacole Scholars program (for first-year students from diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds), and the Diversity Advisory Board. Is CSON more demonstrably inclusive today?

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.

Connell School highlights during Dean Gennaro’s tenure

2016

  • The school’s Comparative Global Health Care course takes place at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile, for the first time, hosting American, Swiss, and Chilean students.
  • SCRUBS, the inaugural CSON sophomore retreat developed with Boston College’s Center for Student Formation, is held.

2014–15

  • CSON moves from Cushing Hall, its home for 55 years, to larger and updated quarters in Maloney Hall.
  • The number of Connell School alumni nears 10,000 from 54 U.S. states and territories and 17 countries.

2013

  • Dean Gennaro is inducted into Sigma Theta Tau’s International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame.

2012

  • CSON establishes Global Health Care: Meeting Challenges and Making Connections, an elective course, with Switzerland’s University of Applied Sciences.

Q: How has the school encouraged nursing research and other ways of developing and disseminating knowledge?

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.

 

Q: How have nurses’ roles evolved since 2008?

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.

Connell School highlights during Dean Gennaro’s tenure

2011

  • Connell faculty and students take the school’s first weeklong clinical service trip to Haiti, site of one of CSON’s seven international programs that promote global understanding.

2010

  • CSON establishes the Pinnacle Lecture Series to bring nursing leaders to campus to address key health care issues.

2009

  • Susan Gennaro is awarded a $1.53 million grant from NIH’s National Institute of Nursing Research to study mechanisms underlying preterm birth in minority women.
  • Keys to Inclusive Leadership in Nursing (KILN) program, developed to help prepare students to become nurse leaders in underserved communities, launches.
  • First meeting of the Diversity Advisory Board, established to help CSON plan and implement programs that foster a culture of inclusion

2008

  • Susan Gennaro, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, the Florence and William Downs Professor of Nursing Research at New York University, becomes Boston College’s seventh nursing school dean.

Q: What significant challenges does nursing continue to face?

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.

 

Q: How has working at a Jesuit, Catholic institution, along with your attending a Jesuit college, Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., helped shape your experience?

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.
Susan Gennaro, Dean, Connell School of Nursing, 2008–2021

Q: The year 2020 was both the “Year of the Nurse” and the year of COVID-19. What will you remember most about leading the Connell School during the pandemic?

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.

 

Q: Was stepping down as dean a hard decision?

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.