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Karen Foli, director of PhD in Nursing program, addresses students


Monday, February 11th, 2019

The following are remarks by associate professor Karen Foli, director of the PhD in Nursing program, during the 2019 HHS Academic Recognition Reception.

First, I’d like to thank Dean Underwood and Heather Dykes for inviting me to share part of this evening with you. I also want to congratulate you, the students, who are recognized this evening for your academic achievements. I appreciate this opportunity to present to all in attendance.

When I was approached, I was told that the student planning committee requested a Murphy-award winning teacher to share a little about success in life, in teaching, and how leadership and teaching may be synergistic in my professional life.

So I think there is power in narrative and who doesn’t like a good story? I’m going to share two stories with you and as I share, I’d like you to think about how success is woven into these contexts.

Service learning with senior nursing students

The first story has to do with service learning, which is an approach we used in the senior nursing class for a number of years. For those who are unfamiliar with service learning, it’s when students collaborate with community partners to provide service to them, and in the process, students learn all kinds of knowledge and skills – and integrate values such as social justice. There’s a wonderful grant program through the Office of Engagement that supports student projects and allows the students to financially plan these projects through budgets supporting a wide variety of things, including special events, like health fairs, and purchases of goods needed by the constituents of the community partners.

This particular group of senior nursing students was what I would call an underdog group. These five young women didn’t seem unified, communication broke down frequently, and their community partner, the Cary Home for Children, had great needs. Cary Home serves children who have been removed from the home and may be interfacing with the juvenile justice system. They work toward re-entry of the children into the community through making healthy choices. Very needy kids. Given this particular student group and these children’s needs, I was worried on several levels, feeling a responsibility as a teacher and as a community partner.

As the semester progressed, the students wrote a service learning grant, which I critiqued several times. They seemed to be lost as to the project’s direction to take. Finally, I was told the student nurses were planning an event with the Purdue basketball team. I’m like – where did that come from? I was informed that one of the students had “connections” and could gain access to the team, etc. So I held my breath, touching base with them periodically, and was assured all was well. I let them know I was here to support them and appreciated periodic updates on permissions for the Cary Home kids to be transported on campus, and so forth. The students had lots of details and arrangements to coordinate.

The night of the event came and I walked over to Mackey Arena with some trepidation, hoping that the service learning gods were smiling down upon my group. I went into the building and no one was in sight. I walked around, thinking, “oh, no.”

Then, a woman from the Cary Home introduced herself, then, the buses from Cary home arrived, then the children spilled out. I watched them as they ran toward the entrances; they were smiling, full of energy and in awe of actually being at Purdue and at Mackey. I watched as one little boy, probably about 10 years old, spun around and around, touched everything he could, the railing, the glass cases. Soaking it all in.

I spotted my students, active, engaged, and organized. They had used the service learning grant funds to purchase individual toiletries and undergarments for the kids, whom often came to the home with none of these supplies we take for granted. The students had placed these supplies into individual bags for each child.

We went downstairs and into a room just off the actual basketball floor and in walked the team and Coach Painter. The athletics department had generously provided a buffet for everyone – all kid friendly food: chicken tenders, mac n’cheese, burgers and salad. Small tables were set up for the guests – the kids and the basketball players.

The nursing students were alight with energy. They were talking to each other, working together, and carried themselves as assured leaders.

Then, something magical happened: the children sat with the basketball players and began to talk as they shared the meal. I saw them talk and laugh and share. Afterwards, they went onto the floor and began shooting the ball.

The nursing students were alight with energy. They were talking to each other, working together, and carried themselves as assured leaders.

I looked around, knowing that I wasn’t needed, and was only a distraction. It was a wonderful feeling. This wasn’t my night. It was the students’ show. Before leaving, I stopped to thank Coach Painter for all he’d done, and he said, “No, thank you.”

So if we deconstruct this in terms of success, what do you think? I think success is born from helping others find their talents, their unique gifts. It’s getting out of their way and taking a leap of faith, trusting others to meet expectations. The opposite, micromanaging, kills the spirit. It blocks creativity and smothers motivation. True leadership is setting others up for success. And in this case, so many people were touched in a positive way: certainly my students. I could see it on their faces. Although nursing is a practice, and service-oriented profession, service learning offered them an opportunity to reach a vulnerable group of children and gave them a once-in-a-lifetime experience: they had shot hoops with the Purdue basketball team on the floor of Mackey arena. And I think it gave the players an opportunity to share their narratives, perhaps advising and offering support.

This memory is one that I don’t think I’ll ever forget because it was a shared success. No one individual was singled out; yet, I don’t think anyone really wanted to be. For me, what I was able to offer the students went beyond the boundaries of the classroom and beyond the course objectives.

Karen Foli and Libby Richards, faculty in Purdue School of Nursing
Karen Foli, director of PhD in Nursing, and Libby Richards, assistant professor in Purdue School of Nursing

Trauma-informed parenting class for kinship parents

The second story I’d like to share has to do with some research I conducted a couple of years ago. I’d received some research funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to examine the impact of a trauma-informed parenting class for kinship parents in rural Indiana counties. Let’s talk about what that means.

Kinship parents, typically grandparents, are taking over the care of children who may be removed from the home due to parental substance use, incarceration, or illness. I see these families – which are exploding in numbers – as the collateral fallout from the opioid crisis we’re facing. This particular project called for the parenting classes to be co-facilitated by nursing faculty and Purdue’s Extension Educators. The curriculum was designed by experts in child traumatic stress and powerful in its messages. Last, I would draw your attention to the fact that these classes were offered in rural counties, spaces with very little resources.

I see these families – which are exploding in numbers – as the collateral fallout from the opioid crisis we’re facing.

Karen Foli, Director of PhD in Nursing program at Purdue University

Often, these families exist in crisis, with caregivers who are unable to understand challenging behaviors from the child, born from trauma. So for example, the children might be very upset with even a small change in routine, even a positive change. What the grandparents may not be aware of is the need for their child’s control and the past trauma experienced through a family in chaos and crisis.

So these classes were often held for about six hours on Saturdays and one of the benefits from coming to the classes was that we were able to offer childcare. So the grandparents were in class and the kids were watched by undergraduate student nurses, whom I had recruited.

Over two Saturdays in Owen County Indiana, we met at the YMCA, a newer facility with a beautiful indoor swimming pool. On the first Saturday, the kids poured into the facility with tired-looking grandparents in tow. Earlier I had carpooled with the students who were going to be watching the children and one had mentioned she was a certified lifeguard and would be willing to swim with the kids the following Saturday. The Extension Educator thought it was a good idea and was able to communicate this opportunity to the grandparents.

As I spoke to the educator, I expressed my doubts about them remembering the kids’ swim gear given what they dealt with on a daily basis, but hoped I was wrong. The next Saturday, each grandparent and child carried in bags of extra clothing and swimsuits. I was indeed wrong.

During the afternoon break, I watched from the upper level as the children splashed, laughed, squealed, and played in the water. Even two hours later, after the grandparents’ class was over, the kids were still in the water, but tired. I stayed to debrief with the Extension Educator – the content of the classes was pretty intense. And each grandparent thanked us as they left with their worn-out, but happy kids.

It may seem like a small success. But think about it. For one day at least, children who had experienced significant trauma and maltreatment at such a young age, could just be a kid; could experience joy.

On the way home, the student nurses commented on how some of the children said they hadn’t been able to swim in years and probably wouldn’t be able to for a while. The students smiled or became flat as they remarked about some of the things the children had shared with them, some of them very sad and some very funny. Certainly a bittersweet experience for them.

As I performed my data collection after the trauma-informed parenting classes were over, one finding stands out. The parents related how they could understand their children in a way they couldn’t have before. They could see their children’s lives with more empathy and compassion. The grandparents told me they yelled less at them. Perhaps these classes had diminished new trauma from occurring.

As I relate these experiences, which in my mind stand out as huge successes, I hope you noted that there were no awards, no distinct lines on my resume, no ribbons, trophies, or other outward recognitions. These successes have meaning within my person because they contributed something good to people who really needed something good in their lives, which I alone could not have contributed. Second, these experiences helped to shape others’ success. I hope I conveyed to my students that we are part of a bigger landscape and that we each have burdens we carry and gifts to share.

Karen Foli

True leaders are authentic. They are risk takers, which means they have courage. They are willing to step in when needed and step back when not. Sometimes, the best leadership is invisible. And what may seem like a small success, may be huge to an individual, a team, a family, a class. I’ll conclude with an African Proverb that I think offers us truth: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

In our society, so often characterized by a paradox of loneliness and an ability to give, we really need to go together to succeed.