Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

What I've Learned

Susan Gennaro

Reflections on a life in nursing from the former dean of the Connell School.

After thirteen years as dean of the Connell School of Nursing, Susan Gennaro stepped down in May. But she’s not going anywhere. The internationally recognized nurse-researcher will remain on the Boston College faculty and focus on teaching, editing the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, and leading an NIH-funded study that promotes wellness among pregnant women of color. When we caught up with her in March, just days before she delivered the Connell School’s biannual Pinnacle Lecture, Gennaro talked about finding purpose in your work and why BC was the only place she ever wanted to be a dean. 

I grew up on Staten Island, back before the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge was built. In those days, you had to take a ferry to get to Manhattan, and I learned a lot about resilience just by commuting three hours round-trip to Hunter College High School every day. During World War II, my mother trained in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps and one of my aunts served as a nurse on both fronts. It was one of the jobs women could get back then, so naturally, I decided there was no way I was going to do it. I didn’t even like feeding the cat. How was I going to be a nurse?

I was the first in my family to go to college. I went to Le Moyne College, another good Jesuit college, and majored in English. After graduation, I got a job at an insurance company on Wall Street, but I hated it. I thought, If the world ends tomorrow, it won’t have made any difference what I did all day. Without knowing it, I’d started asking myself those questions we ask our students here at BC: What brings you joy? What are you good at? What does the world need? I’d initially rejected nursing because I saw it as a stereotypically female profession. But in my discernment, I realized I liked helping people. Was I going to let society’s stereotypes define who I was?

The world certainly needs nursing, and I felt I could be good at it and find joy in it. It turns out there are lots of things nurses can do, and none of them involve cat food. So, I enrolled in the master’s program at Pace University. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, because that’s where I met my husband, Bill Fehder. Forty-four years later, here we are.

Finding your specialty is like dating: You explore the opportunities that come up until you figure out what suits your personality. My first nursing job was in obstetrics, and that got me interested in perinatal care and labor and delivery. I’ve never seen a baby being born without getting tears in my eyes. Every single time, it’s a true miracle. It affirms that there’s more out there than just us.

Bill and I have been nurses in a lot of states—California, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Alabama. We’ve been in Boston for thirteen years. Bill was on the BC faculty until he retired last May. I used to tell him I never wanted to be a dean, but he’d tell you I always added, "Unless it was at Boston College." That’s because I share BC’s mission and values. Remember, I was formed at a Jesuit institution. Here, the culture is never just about writing the next R01 grant. It’s about being the best human being you can be.

This past year has been a journey. We had to pivot quickly to help our students and our community. Our faculty took extra shifts in ICUs and COVID-19 wards between teaching on Zoom and homeschooling their kids. Our nurse practitioner students started offering telehealth visits to students in quarantine. As we work to get back to normal, nursing schools will be on the front lines. Luckily, when there’s a real need, BC takes care of people, and I’ve felt supported throughout my time as dean. My years here have made my family and my spiritual life stronger. I feel as though I’m leading the life I was called to lead.