Q&A: Jean Johnson, MS’78, PhD, RN, FAAN, and Effy Yu ’15, PhD’19, Cert’19
The University of Wisconsin–Madison Nurses Alumni Organization (UW NAO) is proud to announce the 2022 NAO Award Winners. Jean Johnson, MS’78, PhD, RN, FAAN, has been selected as the 2022 Distinguished Achievement Award recipient, and Zhiyuan “Effy” Yu, ’15, PhD’19, Cert’19, has earned the 2022 Outstanding Badger Nurse Award.
Johnson is dean emerita and professor at the George Washington University (GW) School of Nursing. She also serves as the executive director of GW’s Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement. Throughout her career, she has been committed to improving the health and well-being of people and communities and has designed and launched a range of programs to improve access to nursing education and health care in rural and underserved communities.
Yu is the Morton K. and Jane Blaustein postdoctoral fellow in psychiatric and mental health nursing research at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Her program of research focuses on understanding and preventing the intergenerational transmission of adversity and its health consequences, with an overarching goal to improve health outcomes and equities among families and young children exposed to high levels of adversity.
Get to Know the 2022 NAO Award Winners
Why did you choose UW–Madison?
Johnson: My husband had completed his post-doctorate at UW–Madison and I saw an opportunity to continue my education. I read about nurse practitioners (NP) in the early 70s, and I was very intrigued about being able to do more as a nurse. The School of Nursing started a geriatric NP program, and I thought that would be a great opportunity. I was told that a traineeship might be available, so I applied and got it. At that time, the Department of Health and Human Services was called the Department of Health and Human Welfare and they provided specific NP program traineeships through grant funds.
Yu: I chose UW–Madison because of its prestigious, internationally-known academic standing and vibrant college-town vibe. I always had an affinity for places near water bodies, so I also loved that Lakes Mendota and Monona hug the campus.
Describe how your nursing education has influenced your career or life path.
Johnson: My nursing education has influenced every part of my life. With each step in my education, I gained greater personal and professional confidence and was challenged in many ways by patient care and educational opportunities for students. I would never have had the many opportunities that I did have for growth and leadership. Nursing has been an incredibly rewarding profession. Clinically, it provides personal challenges and self-knowledge when you work with people in life-and-death situations as well as everyday situations where people struggle. On the academic side, it provides challenges to be innovative and creative in ways to help students learn, manage themselves in difficult situations, and work with faculty and others to be the best version of themselves. Nursing has been my path for one of my core values, which is to try to help the world be a kinder, more compassionate, and healthier place.
Yu: My nursing education has given me a lens of compassion to notice human suffering and the scientific toolbox to understand and respond in a systematic and evidence-based way.
Why did you choose nursing? Did you always know you wanted to be a nurse, or did you explore other options first?
Johnson: I did not always know I wanted to be a nurse, even though my older sister and aunt were nurses. My first degree was in economics from the University of Illinois; I had specialized in developing economies and thought I would work internationally. I worked with the Job Corps in Chicago to support young, vulnerable women in job training. After the funding ran out for that project, I worked in St. Croix with a group of friends to open a pre-school for non-nationals who have no benefits. The only way women could work was to have a safe place for their children. After that, I traveled and ended up on a small island in Greece — Spetses — for a year. While living on the island, I got sick and there was no health care, only a traveling physician and my friends got him to come early. I likely had pneumonia and responded to antibiotics. While I was recovering, I reviewed my life and knew my future was not living in Spetses. In my review, I realized that some of the most meaningful times for me were when I volunteered at a local hospital while in high school and worked as a nurse assistant during summers while in college. I decided then I was going to go into nursing and put a plan in place, which included getting back to the States and applying to nursing school.
Yu: To be honest, I never thought I would be a nurse growing up because my whole family is all hydraulic engineers, but I am always fascinated by how the human body works. I became certain that I wanted to be a nurse when I had a shadowing experience at a burn ICU (intensive care unit), which at that time had just received an entire unit of burn patients because of a mine explosion. The experience of taking care of people in their most vulnerable state and attending and responding to not just the physical but mental and emotional pain solidified my pursuit to become a nurse.
Which role, position, or experience has been the most significant to your nursing career? Why?
Johnson: This is a tough question. My role as a geriatric nurse practitioner was incredibly significant because I loved the elder people I worked with, the level of accountability that I had, and the team of folks that I worked with. Perhaps the most significant was being the founding dean of the School of Nursing at George Washington University. We had to build educational programs, get many levels of approval within the university (medical center faculty senate, dean’s committee, university faculty senate, and board of trustees) and externally (nursing program accreditors, regional accreditor, board of nursing, and other government agencies). We offered our first master’s level program in 2006, our DNP (doctorate of nursing practice) program in 2008, and our accelerated BSN (bachelor of science in nursing) program in 2010—all were fully accredited by 2010. Once we started the internal process for recognition as a school, it took 8 months to complete all the approvals. Along the way I learned a lot!! There was the political intrigue with the university in mounting a new school, working with groups I had not worked with before, and building on relationships that I had developed over my years at GW. We started with 6 students in 2006, and when I left the dean position in 2015, we had over 800 students.
Yu: My UW–Madison School of Nursing Honors Program experience opened the door to nursing research for me. Without this experience, I would not know the possibility of a nursing career could offer and the consideration, rigorousness, and impact of nursing science. This program encouraged me to pursue the early entry PhD option and provided me with a solid foundation to launch my career in nursing research.
How are you currently engaged with the School of Nursing? Why do you choose to stay involved and engaged?
Johnson: I am on the School’s Board of Visitors and co-chair of the development committee, which looks at ways to continue to support the School’s mission and initiatives. A turning point in my life was being a graduate student in school. My NP education was truly the prelude to seeing many possibilities in nursing and life and having the courage to take on challenges that at times seemed like impossible or at least improbable work. It was at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that I became the person I wanted to be—and the best version of that person. I must continually work at it, yet the SoN gave me the tools to do the work that is necessary for growth.
Yu: I am currently the co-chair of the Alumni of Color Subcommittee of the School of Nursing. I choose to stay involved and engaged because I want to give back to the school that supported me to be where I am today and to serve my community who may share differential/difficult experiences as alumni, nurses, or students because of their identities.
Which School of Nursing member (faculty, leadership, or staff) had the biggest impact on your experience?
Johnson: The people that had the biggest impact included Emily Campbell, Judy Bausch, and Fern Mims. Emily Campbell was the founding director of the GNP program and was very engaged with all the students. She was inspirational, practical, and always challenging and kind. She knew how to get the best work from students. Judy Bausch was one of my clinical teachers. She was my role model for what a nurse practitioner could do and be. She supported my learning by challenging me and supporting me. Fern Mims taught a crises intervention course that was an incredible experientially-based course. We really delved into who we were and how we could manage crises. It was a course that has served me well my entire life.
Yu: My Ph.D. mentor, Dr. Barbara Bowers. Barb truly defines the word “mentor” and “researcher.” Words cannot justify how much of an impact Barb has had on my experience and nursing career. I am forever grateful for all her support and wisdom imparted to me.
What advice would you give to recent graduates and young alumni?
Johnson: I would advise recent graduates and young alumni to be courageous, keep extending yourself, and take care of yourself. Always understand that you are a therapy for patients—it is the relationship with patients and not the tasks that are important. Patients expect you to have the skills to care for them and they want to know that you care about them as people. If there is a situation that is toxic for you, either try to change it or leave. Practice reflection and gratitude daily and keep exploring who you are and who you want to be.
Yu: You can’t pour from an empty glass. Self-care isn’t selfish.
What advice would you give a current nursing student?
Johnson: The same as above as well as letting them know that nursing is an amazing profession and that there are many, many opportunities. The future is in their hands.
Yu: When interacting with patients, you must take a holistic approach. Ask questions related to their background, lifestyle, and other factors that may be contributing to their symptoms or pain. You will interact with patients who can be difficult or uncompliant, and you may find yourself asking “why?” and trying to get to the source of their behaviors. In short, be curious!