Antonia M. Villarruel, PhD, RN, FAAN, Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing, is the leader Penn Nursing needs at an incredible time of change and challenge in the nursing community. Her fresh approaches to health equity and innovation have made all the difference.
Penn Nursing is built on the bedrock of doing more—as clinicians, scientists, activists, policy makers, and leaders. The School’s alumni have a global reputation for leading the charge to better health care, so expectations were high when Dr. Villarruel—a 1982 alumna of the School’s MSN program and only the second alumna to ever serve as Dean—took the reins as Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing in 2014. From the start, she honored the legacy of those who came before her and set a course for sustained institutional excellence, while aiming to position Penn Nursing on an even higher echelon of success, both locally and globally.
From the start, Dr. Villarruel understood the power of possibilities—and the idea that Penn Nursing is, and should be, the preeminent force that fuels those possibilities. She elevated the School’s commitment to health equity and social justice, carving out new pathways for faculty, students, and staff to work alongside the communities that nurses and Penn Nursing serves to forge greater access to care. Under her leadership, the School advanced research and prioritized innovation, and created new educational programs that not only impact Penn Nursing students but the greater nursing community. Penn Nursing’s mission to advance the science of nursing, promote equity, demonstrate practice excellence, and prepare leaders in the discipline of nursing is stronger than ever through her dedication, advocacy, and stewardship.
A Champion for Health Equity
Now in her ninth year as Dean of Penn Nursing, Dr. Villarruel has ensured that Penn Nursing is a global and transformative force for good, engaging diverse communities and promoting health, particularly for underserved populations that face health disparities. She prioritized the need to root out bias in the nursing curriculum to ensure Penn Nursing students receive the best possible nursing education and prepare them to understand the social determinants of health. She uplifted Penn Nursing’s institutional commitment to dismantling structural racism in health environments, setting students and faculty on a path to partner with communities to develop bold new ideas and practices to find solutions to formidable health challenges and promote health. This has resulted in the launch of several new programs, initiatives and collaborations, including the Eidos LGBTQ+ Health Initiative, the Summer Innovation Institute, and the Vingroup-Penn Alliance, not to mention the Leonard A. Lauder Community Care Nurse Practitioner Program and the Amy Gutmann Leadership Scholars both programs that make it possible for students with economic need and a desire to serve in underrepresented communities to pursue higher education.
Dr. Villarruel has established Penn Nursing as a stellar example to nursing educators and the nursing community at-large for how to do the critical work of addressing health equity.
Establishing an Innovation Ecosystem
Inventive ideas positively impact human health—and nurses have always been uniquely situated to develop genius solutions to health care’s most pressing issues, whether at the bedside, in the boardroom, or in the halls of Congress. Dr. Villarruel has instituted innovation as a through-line to everything Penn Nursing does, encouraging nursing students, alumni, and faculty to improve health and well-being; design and create new approaches to the delivery of care; and communicate health information in a way that is easily accessible to patients, families, and the community.
Integrating an innovation mindset into Penn Nursing’s already dynamic environment has produced an incredible array of opportunities. Under Dr. Villarruel’s direction, Penn Nursing established a new Director of Innovation role. Just one example of the importance of this position is the launch of the Innovation Accelerator program, which funds and provides mentorship to Penn Nursing students and faculty creating and testing early stage solutions to improve health and health care outcomes. Additionally, responding to need and building on lessons learned during the pandemic around online learning environments, Penn Nursing established a new groundbreaking degree program—a Masters of Science in Nutrition Science earned entirely online. Need was also the catalyst behind Penn Nursing’s exceptional collaboration with Columbia School of Social Work to educate social workers and nurses about psychedelics-assisted therapy. These are only a few instances of how the focus on an innovation ecosystem has moved Penn Nursing in exciting new directions.
A Shared Vision
During Dr. Villarruel’s tenure as Dean, QS World University has ranked Penn Nursing as No. 1 in the world every year since 2016, when rankings began. U.S. News & World Report has ranked the School’s undergraduate program as No. 1 in the country since they began ranking BSN programs in 2022, and its graduate programs are also ranked among the best. Dr. Villarruel’s shared vision for Penn Nursing as the preeminent intellectual and transformative force in improving health through nursing has already had an incredible impact, and she will continue to move the School forward in its mission— because “doing more” is part of its culture.
Strategic priorities include committing to being at the vanguard of research in Precision Science, Data Science, and Implementation Science with an explicit purpose of achieving health equity; further embedding and encouraging innovation as a means of preparing the next generation of nursing leaders; advancing BSN and master’s entry programs that prepare nurses to meet changing health and health care needs; and more. Penn Nursing’s most recent strategic plan, through Dr. Villarruel’s leadership, sets forth a bold future—for the School, for nursing, and for a world where equitable health care for all is achievable.