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Inspiring Impact: How One Campaign Changed Everything

The numbers are impressive. More than 4,300 generous donors. Over 13,400 gifts made. And in the end, Penn Nursing’s Innovating for Life and Living Campaign—part of Penn’s larger Power of Penn Campaign—raised $3 million more than its $60 million goal thanks to its Board of Advisors, lead volunteers, and many donors and friends.

Global Changemakers

The Campaign closed on June 30, 2021, but at the public launch in 2018, Alaina Hall—then a senior graduating with her BSN and a President’s Engagement Prize—said, “Innovation isn’t always about technology, but it is always about solutions. And nurses are expert problem solvers.” Her words spoke to the heart of what Penn Nursing’s leadership imagined might be possible with the right plan and enough funding—and today we see the true impact of all that the Innovating for Live and Living Campaign accomplished.

“While innovation has always been a natural part of the nursing world, focusing on innovation in a very intentional way as a school was never on our radar,” says Professor and Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing Antonia M. Villarruel PHD RN FAAN. “Our volunteer leaders helped us to understand that doing so would give our students an incredible edge—and potentially change the world of nursing.” The idea of infusing the concept of innovation into every aspect of Penn Nursing turned out to be a milestone moment. From technology to community engagement opportunities to curriculum to scholarships and beyond, the Campaign opened the door to doing things differently. And those risks have paid off.

Credit: Photo by David Aaron Troy

Global Changemakers

Penn nursing’s role in health care, both globally and right here at home, has been greatly intensified as the result of the Innovating for Life and Living Campaign—but it’s the global space where taking more risks has been, as Villarruel notes, “a game-changer.”

The Dean points to the launch of the Penn Global Nursing Fellows (PGNF) program as a transformative moment during the Campaign, an initiative that developed because a recipient of Penn Nursing’s well-known global women’s health award requested urgent help with a project of critical public health importance in India. Through the innovative thinking that the Campaign encouraged, Penn Nursing did more than just address a single project—it vowed to create a force of talented alumni and faculty prepared to take on pressing problems around the world, creating solutions in ways that only nurses can. In existence for just a few short years, PGNF has matched alumni and faculty to projects in Haiti, India, and five countries in Africa.

Nancy Biller MPH MA, Assistant Dean for Global Health Affairs, says, “PGNF provides for extended global engagement of three months to a year— which means our faculty and alumni teams can have a real impact partnering with great on-the-ground organizations that are committed to serving vulnerable populations. It’s a great opportunity that puts Penn Nursing in the center of influencing global health, right where we should be.”

Current PGNF Fellow Barbara Doyle RN MSN PMP Nu’86 GNu’94 GNC’96 WEV’09 notes that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the project she undertook with a second Fellow and a Penn Nursing faculty advisor in 2021 became virtual— but it has been no less impactful. She and her colleagues are working on a critical care curriculum that will be introduced for nurses across Haiti, among other curricula and evaluation work.

Doyle says, “Even though international travel was at a complete standstill, the inventive aspects of this fellowship allowed me to collaborate with nurses around the world and support them in their efforts to improve health care on a global level.”

Penn Nursing’s extended global outreach through the Campaign also generated dynamic new opportunities for Penn Nursing students and raised the profile of existing global programs— further solidifying Penn Nursing’s reputation as a world-health powerhouse. The Global Impact Fund was initiated through the Campaign, allowing then-student Tiffany Hsu Nu’19 RES’19 to complete an internship in bioethics at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. “This experience galvanized me to forge an intersectional career of my passions, broadening my scope and my definition of what it means to be a nurse,” says Hsu. “I spent my summer immersed in an incredible diversity of people and ideologies, while learning about the intricacies of international organizations and peacebuilding across nations.”

And when Penn Nursing MSN student Christine Oliva was in the BSN program, she utilized new travel funding generated through the Campaign to visit Thailand for a firsthand look at Thai medical practices, something that—as a first generation, low-income student— she never thought possible. “My trip to Thailand changed my viewpoint in so many ways, and influenced me to return to Penn to pursue my MSN,” Oliva says. “It completely altered the career trajectory I saw for myself.”

While the Power of Penn Campaign gave critical mass to support for first-generation college students, Innovating for Life and Living leveraged that support into strategic and unique experiences to prepare future health care leaders.

Credit: Photo by David Aaron Troy

Across Schools, Across Disciplines

Global partnerships and experiences are only one side of the equation when it comes to risk-taking and innovation. Thanks to a focus on thinking creatively about how best to provide students with the highest quality education and how to influence public health in high-im - pact ways, Penn Nursing embarked on several exciting interdisciplinary collaborations.

For Rosemary C. Polomano PHD RN FAAN, Associate Dean for Practice, innovation in leadership that has resulted from the Campaign has been pivotal. “The encouragement to inspire not just students and alumni but ourselves— particularly during the pandemic—is a necessary competency. It’s a strategic imperative to work together with our clinical practice partners, and thanks to that innovation in leadership, we’re doing so in unique ways.”

She holds up the SOAR (Supporting Older Adults at Risk) program as a sterling example of one of many ways practice partnerships are providing Penn Nursing students with ingenious ways of gaining clinical experience— especially in the fast-growing field of gerontology. The program—under the leadership of Penn Medicine Director of Nursing Research and Science Rebecca Trotta PHD RN Nu’98 GNu’01 GR’10— works to help elderly patients go home from the hospital earlier through the assessment of needs and home-based support. Through Penn Nursing’s practice partnership, nursing students help staff the program and shape the future of health care delivery as the nation’s largest generation ages.

The Innovating for Life and Living Campaign opened up potent new collaborations in other areas as well, including a partnership with Penn Medicine that aims to improve access to mental health services in Chester County, Pennsylvania, through the Penn Integrated Care Program. This initiative will embed a psychiatric nurse practitioner into an existing primary care practice as well as create opportunities for the psych NP to precept Penn Nursing students—a fantastic benefit for students intending to pursue careers in mental health nursing.

Cross-school partnerships have brought Penn Nursing incredible opportunities, as well, including a new Penn Nursing-Penn Dental partnership that embeds a nurse practitioner within the Care Center for Persons with Disabilities. This is a life-changing innovation for patients with physical or intellectual disabilities and medically complex conditions—the very populations that typically struggle to receive care. The dental center, with its embedded NP to manage primary care connections for patients, is already impacting access to dental care in the West Philadelphia community—and will serve as a model of integrated nurse-managed care in a dental setting across the country. And, as this collaboration moves forward, it will provide Penn Nursing students with unparalleled access to unique integrative clinical environments, creating new interdisciplinary clinical options for nursing students, and broadening their experience.

The Campaign has prioritized these ventures and other opportunities to improve access to cutting-edge education so that Penn Nursing students can continue to fearlessly lead in health care spaces that are rapidly changing. 

Credit: Photo by David Aaron Troy

Centering Innovation

Commitment to innovative learning and new forms of knowledge are nothing with - out the drive to change the world—and it is through integrating innovation into everything Penn Nursing does and encouraging students to embrace their natural entrepreneurial vision that the new innovation ecosystem at the School has blossomed under the leadership of Therese S. Richmond PHD RN FAAN, the Andrea B. Laporte Professor of Nursing and Associate Dean for Research and Innovation.

Campaign support was instrumental in the launch of the Innovation Accelerator, a program that provides funding for research and development of proposed solutions to pressing health care challenges, such as the Smart Socks developed by Pamela Z. Cacchione PHD CRNP GNP BC FGSA FAAN, Ralston House Endowed Term Chair in Gerontological Nursing—a solution to the poor symptom recognition that patients in heart failure typically have, providing an option for early intervention when symptoms worsen. The socks have the capacity to transmit data to a care provider, the patient’s smartphone, or a trusted other, allowing for the monitoring of treatment—a potentially revolutionary device for patients who live alone or in rural areas, or who do not have regular visits with a care provider.

Richmond is quick to point out that the Innovation Accelerator is only one small part of the growing innovation ecosystem. “Thanks to the vision of the Campaign, we’ve been able to support Faculty Innovation Fellows and help students obtain innovation experiences. We told nurses’ stories in innovative ways through the now-annual Penn Nursing StorySlam and our Amplify Nursing pod-cast. We partnered with other schools and industries. In fact, this year, for the first time, a Penn Nursing student was selected as the Penn President’s Innovation Prize winner.”

To expand impact and support student entrepreneurship, the innovation ecosystem encouraged the creation of a Design Thinking for Health course and open-source platform in partnership with a national foundation. Marion Leary RN MSN MPH FAHA, Director of Innovation, teaches the course. “Innovation is not just technology or widgets,” she says, “but the methodologies we use to solve problems, the systems and processes we create, and the way we communicate with students, our patients, their families, and the community at large. That is why educating nursing students around innovation and entrepreneurship is so important. It provides students a different way of not just assessing health and health care problems but creating much needed solutions from a nursing perspective.”

Teaching for the Future

To further augment the innovation ecosystem, new technology was a must—and determining the right technological enhancements, according to Julie Sochalski PHD RN FAAN, Associate Dean for Academic Programs, made leadership look critically at the curriculum and program offerings. However, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that shifted Penn Nursing’s education mission priorities forward faster than anything else.

“The Campaign, in combination with the pandemic, led to a seismic shift in our education focus. It was a game-changer. Teaching is not our focus—learning is our focus. Learning comes from engagement, and that puts students in the driver’s seat,” says Sochalski. “It became so apparent during the pandemic, when we pivoted to the virtual environment, that we had to very quickly employ new ways of executing our education mission, and that’s what tipped the balance.”

Penn Nursing senior Delaney Wilkinson noticed that seismic shift. “The transition to online learning was difficult,” she says. “But as time went on, online learning provided benefits that let many students tailor their education to meet their own specific needs. Recordings allowed us to watch lectures at our own pace (and sometimes multiple times if needed) while anonymous discussion boards let us ask questions that we may have been too intimidated to ask in-person.”

Centering the education mission in inspired ways took many forms beyond changing pedagogies. An upgrade to the Helene Fuld Pavilion for Innovation Learning and Simulation included out - fitting the space with HoloLens devic - es. With this technology in place, Penn Nursing was able to pilot virtual reality (VR) simulation in the School’s Anatomy and Physiology (AP) course.

John D. Palmer, a junior at Penn Nursing who participated in the Spring 2020 HoloLens pilot, was wowed by learning via VR. He says, “Being able to turn body systems on and off and being able to view descriptions of structures that I selected was incredible. It was easier to see how tissues and muscles were layered in the body compared to the traditional models we used in Lab.”

It’s inventive additions like HoloLens that prepares Penn Nursing students to be powerful leaders—and to have a more robust understanding of the human body and patient needs.

HoloLens may also have applications in Penn Nursing’s state-of-the-art simulation labs, where students bolster their knowledge-based competencies and critical thinking skills (as well as their confidence) through exposure to clinical scenarios involving mannikins that are diverse in age, gender, and race, each with the capacity for behavioral, live action responses.

Penn Nursing was the first nursing school in the nation to incorporate these mannikins into the simulation lab, so it is no surprise that the School is also the first to integrate the Epic electronic health record into the sim lab as well.

Annie Hoyt Brennan MSN RN, Director of the Helene Fuld Pavilion for Innovative Learning and Simulation, says, “At least seventy percent of health care systems in the U.S. are using it, so it gives our students a real advantage in the workplace. It wasn’t a small lift to do something like that.

The Campaign really pushed us forward. Now we get schools across the country wondering how on earth we pulled it off.” The Campaign also impacted the education mission through the introduction of new faculty positions: a new endowed professorship, a PIK (Penn Integrates Knowledge) professorship, a named Assistant Dean of Curricular Affairs position, and several term chair positions. Instilling a sense of innovation into the student body—while also helping students embrace risk-taking— starts with faculty expertise. These new positions reinforce the already stellar Penn Nursing faculty, strengthening and expanding the learning opportunities for students, and amplifying the quality of research coming out of the School.

Advancing Social Justice

Penn nursing’s education mission may have leapt forward because of the Campaign’s focus on innovation and pushed further ahead because of the pandemic, but changes also took place because of social justice concerns. Social justice and equity have long been part of the School’s mission, but Lisa M. Lewis PHD RN FAAN, Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion, points to the murder of George Floyd and other high-profile cases in the summer of 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter marches that took place across the country as the catalyst for work to make the curricula across the board more inclusive and antiracist. Penn Nursing seeks to integrate social justice concerns into every aspect of its work, just as innovation has been integrated into all the School does.

“We’re at a pivotal moment in the School’s history and the country’s history,” Lewis says, “where we have a broad range of support to undertake this effort, from leadership to students. There are areas where we can be doing better, for instance integrating social justice into the curricula—from making students feel represented in the curriculum to discussions about structural issues that cause health problems in certain populations.”

Lewis has been vocal about advancing opportunities for Penn Nursing students to engage in a broad range of social justice and diversity initiatives, both inside and outside the classroom—particularly work with populations who have been historically marginalized and underserved.

The Campaign has supported expanded and strategic student community engagement. During the pandemic, funder support allowed students to create “COVID-19 kits” (containing a face mask and hand sanitizer) that were distributed at a location adjacent to Penn’s campus as part of a project called MASCUP (the Mask Adherence Surveillance at Colleges and Universities Project), a nationwide university surveillance of mask usage spearheaded by the CDC and organized at Penn Nursing.

New funding also allowed Penn Nursing undergraduate and graduate students to work with students who attend Philadelphia-area elementary, middle, and high schools in underresourced areas as part of the Year of the Nurse & Midwife, a World Health Organization-declared year-long event in 2020 that continued through early 2021. Projects undertaken, carried out in collaboration with Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships and through Penn Nursing’s service-focused Community Champions program, helped young students realize that nursing is a dynamic career option with many paths into the field.

ABSN student Annie Gevertz has been active with Community Champions and worked with a group of her fellow students to highlight the incredible work that nurses do every day, inspiring local high school students to consider nursing careers. “This project has allowed me to connect with members of the Philadelphia community and hopefully create a resource that can be used for years to come,” she says.

Credit: Photo by David Aaron Troy

Expanding Engagement and Access

Increased funding for student engagement impacted Penn Nursing’s Community Champions program—now in its seventh year— in broader ways, too. Students were able to partner with local organizations, such as health and wellness initiatives for formerly incarcerated women, and develop prenatal information for underresourced Latinx women. They were also able to develop healthy baby intitia - tives for new parents at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “

Addressing social determinants of health, and building respectful part - nerships are key components of social justice and fundamental to nursing practice,” says Terri Lipman PHD CRNP FAAN, the Miriam Stirl Endowed Term Professor of Nutrition and Assistant Dean for Community Engagement. “Over 60 students were engaged in the Community Champions program during the last academic year; during the pan - demic our commitment to the communi - ty was stronger than ever.”

Even before the pandemic began, the Innovating for Life and Living Campaign and its focus on thinking about things differently spawned an additional en - gagement program: the Community Partnership Program. The program partners with health clinics in the community to provide Penn Nursing students with unique clinical nursing experiences that impact the health and well-being of at-risk populations in Philadelphia. Students have been placed at the health clinic at Puentes de Salud, a Philadelphia organization that works with the City’s growing Latinx immi - grant community to address immediate education, health, and social service needs. More community partnerships through this program are in the works.

It seems as if the Innovating for Life and Living Campaign has truly touched every aspect of Penn Nursing, and the School’s students are benefitting through opportunities in education and engagement. But one crucial area where the Campaign has had an outstanding impact goes further, getting to the very core of why Penn Nursing has been the top-ranked school of nursing in the world for many years running: the stel - lar quality of Penn Nursing students.

A nursing school like Penn Nursing attracts exceptional candidates who are smart, resilient, and dynamic—but many need additional financial aid to make the dream of a Penn Nursing education a re - ality. The Campaign unleashed the pow - er of scholarships. Over the life of the Innovating for Life and Living Campaign, forty new scholarships and fellowships were established, many aimed at stu - dent populations traditionally cut out of financial aid, such as ABSN students and graduate students—including four - teen fellowships made possible by a generous 2:1 matching gift. Additional scholarships focus on students of color or first-generation college students.

This has dramatically changed the culture of the School, helping excellent students who wouldn’t have thought Penn Nursing could be an affordable option a reason to give the School a second look, as well as encouraging great nurses to further their education. That, in turn, impacts the future of the nursing workforce and the future of health care.

ABSN student George Ajoku is the recipient of one of the new fellowships. “Financial aid isn’t easy to come by as an ABSN student, so I very much appreciate the fellowship,” he says. “My end goal in attending nursing school is to prepare to take on some of the world’s most complex and daunting health care challenges in remote parts of third-world countries and emerging economies—and this fellowship is making that goal possible.”

A variety of new resources joined those scholarships, such as the Amy Gutmann Leadership Scholars program developed with a new $2 million gift from Penn’s senior leader. The program, which selects ten scholars annually across undergraduate and graduate degree-levels, not only supplies vital financial aid but also provides specialized mentorship to prepare a cohort of nursing leaders able to deliver exceptional care, locally and in communities around the world. Additional funding bolstered existing initiatives and launched new programs that provide financial resources to students, including students of color, who agree to work in certain locations or with specific populations after graduation.

Making a Penn Nursing education feasible, particularly for low-income students and students in graduate programs, goes beyond tuition aid, though. The Innovating for Life and Living Campaign raised funds to support students through non-tuition means as well, including a fund that, since its launch, has supported three students who would not have been able to graduate without supplemental money for rent, food, and textbooks.

And, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the economic fall-out was widespread, Penn Nursing students and their families were not immune. An emergency call for support brought in approximately 50 gifts totaling close to $200,000, which supported students who needed help outside of tuition costs as well. Alumni were particularly moved to give to the special COVID-19 fund and the School of Nursing’s Annual Fund.

As Nadina Deigh, Vice Dean for Institutional Advancement, says, “Our alumni understand the importance of increasing access and supporting retention for talented students. Penn Nursing produces nurse leaders, who in turn affirm its stellar reputation. The Campaign activated a positive sea change all across the School via philanthropy, impacting and inspiring the entire Nursing community—from faculty to students to alumni.”

Alumni were a pivotal part of the Innovating for Life and Living Campaign— and not just as supporters. Particularly during the pandemic, Penn Nursing staff increased alumni support to help them build a connected community in innovative ways—connecting them to each other as well as to students. This resulted in significantly increased alumni-student mentoring matches; the launch of new alumni social media tools, a Nursing Parent Council, and newsletter; and new innovative programming that embraced virtual technology, such as a social justice-themed online book club.

For Kristin Tuozzo Nu’03, Vice President of the Alumni board, it was an opportunity to innovate and take chances. “The pandemic made us look at alumni communication, outreach, and relationship building differently,” she says. “Suddenly a handshake felt like an act of aggression and many of our alumni, as well as students, felt stranded in isolation. It was essential that we supported them during this psychologically trying time. Student-alumni panels and virtual alumni events broke down the walls of isolation to address this need.”

Credit: Photo by David Aaron Troy

The Next Step

As it turns out, Alaina Hall was right about innovation. The Innovating for Life and Living Campaign did embrace technology, but it also encouraged leadership, faculty, staff, and students to be problem solvers across a range of areas. Creative thinking launched a revolution at the School of Nursing, and Campaign funders made it possible.

On the shoulders of the Campaign, Penn Nursing is now ready to further revolutionize nursing and nursing education through its new strategic plan, Leading to a Healthier, More Equitable Future. “Behind every bold vision for the future, there lies a foundation built on hard work and dedication—and it is through the generosity of donors and the Innovating for Life and Living Campaign that we continue our forward momentum,” says Dean Villarruel. “We will continue our unstoppable drive and pave the way for brilliant and committed nurses, midwives, and nurse-scientists who will tackle and lead discoveries and practice to advance health and wellness for individuals, families, and communities, here and across the globe. There is no stopping us now.”