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History center provides window into nursing’s past

Tucked down a quiet hallway on the fourth floor of Education 2 North, a room nearly overflows with vintage artifacts. Starched, floor-length uniforms that look more like gowns highlight the assortment of nursing relics, from 19th-century class pins and yearbooks to antiquated textbooks and medical instruments.

Inside, intern Brittany Huner scours through boxes of documents, photos and other memorabilia, keeping the artifacts preserved and exhibits updated. For her, the “hidden gem” on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus serves as a stepping stone. But for visitors, the Nursing History Center provides an invaluable connection to an impressive past.

Nursing uniform in History Center
Traditional nursing uniforms are part of the many items on display in the Nursing History Center.

“I didn’t know how big of a deal the CU nursing school was,” said Huner, a recent CU Denver history graduate (MA, ’18) who has maintained the center for more than a year.  The collaborative internship through the CU Denver Public History and Preservation program provides a unique experience for her and an important resource for the College of Nursing (CU Nursing), she said.

Connecting to the past

“It’s good for the modern students to understand how much their field has changed and where it comes from,” Huner said, noting the pioneering efforts of alumni standouts such as Loretta (Lee) Ford (EdD, ’61) and Jean Watson (PhD, ’73), whose work at CU evolved into the profession-changing nurse practitioner model  and “Theory of Human Caring,” respectively.

Through tours, now offered on a walk-in basis on Fridays, the center also draws alumni back, Huner said. “They’ll say: ‘Oh, I remember wearing these uniforms, or I remember using these tools.’ It gives them that real solid connection with the school.”

Many courageous women helped trail blaze the profession from the halls of CU, including former Dean Henrietta Loughran, her work part of Huner’s favorite exhibit. After Pearl Harbor, Loughran leveraged connections and quietly transferred U.S.-born nursing students of Japanese immigrants (Nisei) to CU to finish their education and avoid internment.

“That is a really unique part of the school’s history,” said Huner, who also helps callers find information and old photos for projects. “We actually have some scrapbooks from several of the Nisei students.”

CU pioneers reshape nursing

In 1964, after she and fellow public health nurses found themselves serving the mountain towns and rural areas of Colorado alone without appropriate training, Ford began developing a nurse practitioner model. “There were no other health professionals in these rural areas,” said Ford, 97.

Displays at Nursing History Center
Items on display in the Nursing History Center include garments, documents, photos, artifacts and other memorabilia.

“The goal was to test out a more clinical nursing role and then integrate it into the major curriculum,” she said. Until then, master’s-prepared nurses served only in “functional roles,” such as supervisory, teaching or administrative, Ford said. “We were preparing clinical specialists in our particular areas of expertise.”

Despite fierce resistance on many fronts, Ford, with the “energy of the students” and the “enthusiasm of the patients,” persevered, her model now a standard practice in many specialties worldwide.

Past lessons ‘set stage’ for future

Social and political barriers also confronted Watson in her efforts a decade later to reshape the profession. “My challenges were really to give voice and language to nursing, which is often invisible, particularly in an academic major medical center,” said Watson, 78, whose research at CU led to the caring theory now used in teaching hospitals and medical centers worldwide.

Watson, who served as dean, established the Center for Human Caring and helped establish the first doctoral program and clinical doctorate while at CU. “She’s one of our biggest alumni names,” Huner said, adding that the center has boxes of Watson’s papers and awards from around the world.

As CU Nursing celebrates its 120th anniversary this year, Huner hopes more people will take advantage of the center, especially students. “There’s a lot of neat stuff that I don’t think students really know or get to learn about showing just how much the field has changed,” she said. “I think it sets the stage for future improvements in the field.”

The Nursing History Center is in Education 2 North, Room 4104. Walk-in tours are available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays or by appointment through Dana Brandorff at 303-724-1698.

120 years of nursing excellence

The University of Colorado College of Nursing began in 1898 in Boulder as the University of Colorado Training School for Nurses. During its 120-year history, the college has experienced many firsts including the birthplace of the nurse practitioner and the Centers for Nursing Research and Human Caring, as well as innovative nurse-led clinical practice sites.

In order to truly experience the rich history of the college, we encourage you to take a tour of the Nursing History Center, which is housed at the Anschutz Medical Campus and includes numerous items highlighting the profession of nursing, as well as the unique history of CU Nursing.

“From an original recording of Florence Nightingale to capes, caps and pins to photos and papers from some of the ‘greats’ in nursing education, the center is worth the trip,” said Levi Jensen, an enthusiastic visitor and BSN student from lake Superior State University.

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New College of Nursing dean sees boundless potential

Growing up in a large family, especially as the middle child, tends to enhance a person’s powers of observation.

So it was for Elias Provencio-Vasquez, PhD, RN, FAAN, FAANP, new dean of the CU College of Nursing, who grew up as the only boy in a family of seven children. His parents were Mexican immigrants living in Phoenix. Their life was geared toward day-to-day survival, tending to daily chores and family functions, so notions about higher education didn’t enter the picture. Still, Provencio-Vasquez knew there was a better way, and he became the only member of his family to go to college (several of his nieces and nephews have since graduated from college).

Stepping out of his comfort zone and becoming “the first” would emerge as a theme in Provencio-Vasquez’s life. He became the first Latino male to earn a doctorate in nursing and head a nursing school in the United States.

Prior to his current position, Provencio-Vasquez served as dean of the nursing school at the University of Texas El Paso, associate dean at the University of Miami and director of the Neonatal Nurse Practitioner program at the University of Texas at Houston and the University of Maryland.

During his career, he has served as a clinical nurse, a nurse researcher, a nurse educator, school administrator, and a pediatric and neonatal nurse practitioner. He is internationally renowned for his pioneering work in neonatal and pediatric care and in women’s health. Provencio-Vasquez is also a Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellow alumnus, a Robert H. Hoy III Distinguished Professor in Health Sciences and serves on several community and editorial boards.

As he looks ahead, Provencio-Vasquez sees incredible opportunities in the College of Nursing — building on the college’s many successes and creating bridges to new opportunities in the future. “With my career, I’ve saved the best for last,” he says with a warm and ever-present smile. “This is where I plan to stay and finish my career.”

What made you want to pursue nursing and academia?

CON Dean Elias Provencio-Vasquez
Early exposure to hospitals and nurses inspired Provencio-Vasquez to pursue a career in nursing.

Initially I thought I wanted to be psychologist. In college, I worked as a unit clerk in an emergency room in Phoenix, and I saw what the nurses did and how they took care of patients. I found that nursing and health care were what I wanted to focus on. Before that, in high school, I worked as a dishwasher in a hospital kitchen. That was my first exposure to nurses, and it definitely piqued my interest. But it was especially the nurses I worked with during college, in the hospital ER unit, who were very supportive and encouraging.

You are a first-generation college graduate of Mexican immigrants, and you come from a large family. How did your childhood influence where you are today?  

I was the only boy, the middle child, and I had six sisters. My dad had a very strong work ethic; he was a bricklayer in Phoenix. As you know, it gets very hot there in the summer. He’d take me to work with him and I remember being so miserable, laying bricks in the heat. I realized at a young age that my ticket for getting out of manual labor was to go to college. With my dad working hard to support a family of seven kids, college and education were not part of the agenda of our lives. But I knew I needed to get educated and work toward a profession.

Growing up with sisters had a real impact on me. It translated into the strong respect I have for women and how I enjoy working with them to this day. I think it also positioned me to be a very caring nurse.

What drew you to academia?

I was a nurse for 15 years – first an ER nurse and then a neonatal nurse working with babies. I received my PhD from the University of Arizona in 1992 and I was recruited by the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston to direct its neonatal nurse practitioner program. I spent 10 years as a program director, learning how to navigate academia and how to be a faculty member as opposed to a clinician; they are two very different things. While there, I satisfied my love of patient care by running a clinic for drug- and HIV-exposed infants.

During that time, I got exposed to teaching nursing students, and I really enjoyed it. My specialty was maternal health, and I mostly taught undergraduate students in pediatrics and OB/GYN. I discovered that I really enjoyed academia, so I stuck with it.

What got you interested in reducing maternal risk of substance abuse, HIV exposure and intimate partner violence during and after pregnancy?

In Houston in the early ’90s I worked in a clinic specifically for HIV- and drug- and alcohol-exposed infants. It was during the crack cocaine era, and a lot of babies born were exposed to cocaine and alcohol. I got to know the mothers by taking care of these infants and children. It was an ‘a-ha’ moment. I realized I should focus on taking care of the mothers because they are the gatekeepers of their children’s health. I wanted to give them the skills and tools needed to be good mothers.

Your doctoral dissertation tracked premature babies and their families after they were discharged from the hospital. Did your clinical work in Houston help you decide how to focus your research?

Nursing Dean Elias Provencio-Vasquez
Elias Provencio-Vasquez, PhD, RN, FAAN, started as dean of the College of Nursing in early September.

Back then, welfare services would take kids from mothers who tested positive for cocaine. I would go to the mothers’ homes and give them skills to help them get their children back. So my research focus went toward women and particularly those at risk for health issues and violence. My research helped create an intervention for nurses to help parents of premature infants transition from hospital to their homes. I wanted to help them realize how powerful they were as women and mothers and assist in giving them the tools to be great mothers.

To what do you attribute your success?

Fortunately, I had people along the way who encouraged and mentored me. My mentors were women who really supported and encouraged me to go for that next degree, that next position. They encouraged me to stretch and challenge myself. I believe there is no such thing as luck; it’s what you do with an opportunity that is given to you. I have had many doors opened to me, and I really attribute that to my success and where I am today.

I am at the point in my career where I want to pay it forward and help mentor the next generation of nurses and nurse scientists, because it really had an impact on me.

What does it mean to you to be the first Latino male to earn a doctorate in nursing and head a nursing school in the U.S.?

In terms of being a male in nursing, it is still a very small percentage. There are 3.1 million nurses in the United States and only 9 percent are male. Being a male in nursing in the ’70s and ’80s was a challenge and an opportunity. I look back now and I see that the University of Arizona was proud of the fact that I was the first Latino male to earn a PhD in nursing. I was proud, too, but now I look back and think, ‘Well, it was about time.’ It should have happened well before I came along. Being first is a good feeling because it opened the doors for others to follow.

What excites you about CU and the College of Nursing?

The CU College of Nursing has an amazing history and has made some incredible contributions to health care and nursing. This is where the nurse practitioner field was invented, which has made major contributions to health care in the U.S. Another amazing thing is the many clinics we have in the community providing health care to underserved communities. Our 120-year history is very rich and something to build upon. And the faculty and staff who support this college are really impressive.

‘Our faculty want to continue to see the college succeed and make history. They have made a commitment not only to nursing and research, but to the community as well.’ — Nursing Dean Provencio-Vasquez

The commitment and longevity of the faculty here speaks for itself. They want to continue to see the college succeed and make history. We have faculty who have made a commitment not only to nursing and research, but to the community as well. I am very impressed with our clinics that serve parts of our community that have challenges in health care.

I am excited about our past, but want to make our own history. In 10 years we’re going to say, ‘Look what we did as a College of Nursing.’

Do you view the College of Nursing’s location at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus as a plus?

When your college is part of a larger medical campus it affords many different types of opportunities in terms of clinical practice, research and collaborating with other colleges. There are a lot of opportunities to build bridges with other schools and colleges as well as the hospitals on campus.

You have undoubtedly noticed a campus-wide emphasis on fostering a diverse and inclusive culture. How will you promote diversity within the College of Nursing?

I am impressed by the effort and strategies CU has implemented and focused on to promote diversity within the student population as well as the faculty and staff. There are deliberate reasons to do this, to look like the community we serve. I have talked to faculty members who want to start the conversation and see what we can do to increase diversity among students, faculty and staff. We also need to implement strategies and initiatives that create the desired outcome — that by increasing diversity, we make it more likely for everyone to be successful within the institution.

I think we have a lot of work ahead of us. But I already feel the commitment from the faculty and staff to make that happen, which is refreshing to me.

This interview is taking place early — just your second day on the job. What are your final thoughts about all that is yet to come?

The potential this college has to move forward and to the next level — whatever we decide that to be — is exciting to me. There are untapped possibilities we will all discover. It’s all about building bridges.

In the News: Telemundo, Oct. 3, 2018: Hispano hace su sueño realidad

Editor’s note: Video at top courtesy of the College of Nursing.

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