Phyllis Pelt
R.N., Retired Director of School Nursing Certificate Program

“I am a life-long learner.”

This quarter, we took some time to get Phyllis Pelt’s viewpoint on opportunity and it’s role in professional and personal growth. We were enlightened with a wealth of life-long knowledge and diverse experience around pursing and creating new opportunities.

What have been pivot points of opportunity for you, in your career, or in your life?

There have been several. My nursing career spans almost 50 years. Initially, as a bachelor’s degree prepared Registered Nurse, I had some very unique opportunities. In 1969, as a new nurse and newlywed, living in the Philippine Islands with my husband who was in the Air Force, I was able to use my American Red Cross Expectant Parent Class training to start classes at the Clark Air Force Base for pregnant couples who were far away from the teachings of their friends and relatives. It was an amazing experience because I had enough information to be quite convincing and when the couples learned of my pregnancy, they were surprised that I was having my first baby and that all of my teaching was not from personal experience. I had learned to weave real life situations with the facts provided by the American Red Cross program that I had been certified to teach.

I am a life-long learner and building on knowledge from my colleagues has been a useful strategy. In 1989, a nationwide search by Joe Kellman and other local philanthropists was conducted to find a elementary school administrator to lead a model school for the nation which was located in the North Lawndale community of Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Elaine Mosley, the chief education officer, chose me to work with the Corporate Community Schools of America educational team to develop health and social services for the families and children who would be attending this model school. Parts of this DzHub of servicesdz model provided data for researchers to increase standards of holistic health services in an elementary school setting. Over time, many of the components of the Hub model were replicated throughout various school districts in the United States and abroad.

How do you seek or create opportunities for yourself?

I do not intentionally create opportunities for myself. As a Christian, I know that I am working for the Lord and not any human being. I strive to go above and beyond what is generally required and I do so with a joyful spirit. My peers and supervisors have noted this quality in me for practically my whole nursing career.

In one job interview, the supervisor said she was impressed with my problem solving skills, follow through, culturally sensitive responses and professionalism. By now, I had learned that if “you are out, you are on.” I liked the idea of getting asked to contribute to the higher good as opposed to scanning the want ads looking for opportunities and trying to convince the interviewer that I was the right one.

For many years, I have shared this thinking with nursing students who were African American, Hispanic American or Native American who were affiliated with the Urban Health Program (UHP) at the University of Illinois College of Nursing so that they could increase their own possibilities of being asked to work in one of the over 100 specialty areas in nursing.

How do you create opportunities for others?

Mentoring has been one way that I have been able to facilitate the identification of opportunities for others. I have served as a preceptor for school nurses as well as a mentor to African American nurses who wanted encouragement to obtain advanced degrees. A young nurse that I have mentored for over 10 years has recently completed a doctorate from Rush University in Chicago.

It also helps to be prepared to respond to the “teachable” moments and situations where the powers that be are looking for solutions. Identifying “gaps” and the resources to fill those gaps – usually with a focus on prevention is my main mode of operation. Suggesting prepared individuals to others at professional gatherings, meetings as well as informal times, is another way. Encouraging job seekers to have three minute “elevator speeches” that are ready to be shared at any time also has had some productive outcomes.

As a nurse educator, I have been able to facilitate the preparation of BSN- and Masters-prepared nurses interested in specializing in school nursing. In 1995 when taking courses online was fairly new, thanks to a million dollar Sloan Foundation Grant, I was selected as the Director to work with a team to pioneer online courses at the University of Illinois College (UIC) of Nursing. At the time this was a big deal because the average age of the prospective RN in the course was 43. Their comfort level with the use of computers was very low. Many had not yet considered their teenaged children as potential computer tutors. I was able to encourage intergenerational learning opportunities to not only help our UIC students take and successfully complete this much needed certification program, but to be prepared to direct students to web sites and other resources to help them with health and wellness issues that would assist them at working to their highest potential.

What roles have sponsors played in creating opportunity for you? Can you share any stories?

Some of my sponsors have not always been known to me by name. For example, if it were not for someone who sponsored a scholarship that I received when I first started nursing school at UIC College of Nursing, I would not have been able to live at the student residence hall. I was the 2nd oldest of eight children. My mom was a registered nurse and knew the value of living in the dorm. The fact that I was on scholarship is probably a big reason why I was able to graduate from UIC Nursing.

My most unusual sponsored experience was when I was invited as a content expert to the University of the West Indies. The faculty there was interested in replicating the online school nurse curriculum that I had helped to develop at UIC Nursing. My time there included review of curriculum, site visits, guest lectures, presentations and testimony to government officials. I interfaced with nurse leaders from England, the United States and the West Indies. I experienced other cultures and gained a greater appreciation for being an American citizen.

A $2.5-million-dollar grant allotted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) permitted Dr. JoEllen Wilbur from Rush University to ask me to serve as a nurse interventionist in a Woman’s Walking Program that encouraged African American women between the ages of 40-65 to increase their physical activity. Although I had officially retired from the University of Illinois College of Nursing in 2008, I classified this as a “preferment” opportunity. In “preferment” an individual can choose what they would prefer to do since they are retired. I had participated in a form of this study in the 1980s when it first started at UIC and was later involved in the media messages connected with the study’s group teaching classes. This community-based program updated and erased many myths about research and prepared many of us African Americans to be more open to participating in NIH and other research endeavors that will ultimately impact our quality of life.

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