2023 NAO Award Winners

Mary Gulbrandsen, MS’74, RN, PNP, and Tolu Oyesanya ’11, MS’12, PhD’16.

Q&A: Mary Gulbrandsen, MS’74, RN, PNP, and Tolu Oyesanya ’11, MS’12, PhD’16

The University of Wisconsin–Madison Nurses Alumni Organization (UW NAO) proudly announces the 2023 NAO Award Winners. Mary Gulbrandsen, MS’74, RN, PNP, has been selected as the 2023 Distinguished Achievement Award recipient, and Tolu Oyesanya ’11, MS’12, PhD’16, has earned the 2023 Outstanding Badger Nurse Award.

Gulbrandsen is the executive director of Fund for Wisconsin Scholars (FFWS). This private, non-profit foundation offers need-based grants to recent graduates of Wisconsin public high schools who are attending Wisconsin public colleges full-time and committed to supporting children. With a background as a pediatric nurse practitioner and former school district administrator, she has merged her passions and skills in health care, education, and administration to impact young people positively. Gulbrandsen also serves on the UW–Madison School of Nursing Board of Visitors. In this role, she enjoys learning about the impressive work of faculty and students, keeping up with new practices and research, and sharing the excitement and quality of the School of Nursing with others.

Oyesanya is an associate professor at the Duke University School of Nursing. She received her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees at the UW–Madison School of Nursing between 2011-2016; she completed a post-doctoral fellowship in brain injury research at Shepherd Center in Georgia. Her research has identified that despite high risks of readmissions and complex medical needs, there are no transitional care standards in the United States for patients with moderate-to-severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), impacting independent living and increased family involvement in care management.

Get to know the 2023 NAO Award Winners:

Why did you choose UW–Madison?

Mary Gulbrandsen, MS’74, RN, PNP
Mary Gulbrandsen, MS’74, RN, PNP

Gulbrandsen: In my undergraduate program at St. Olaf College, our pediatric textbook was authored by Florence Blake and Eugenia Waechter. Pediatrics was my favorite area of practice, and I wanted to study under Florence Blake, which I believed would be a wonderful learning opportunity – and although she retired before I arrived on campus, her influence was still dominant, and the learning was wonderful.

Oyesanya: I went to UW–Madison for all my higher education and studied at the university for 24 consecutive semesters, pursuing my degrees over nine years. I chose UW–Madison for three reasons. First, Wisconsin is known for being an academic powerhouse, producing strong undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Second, the university has numerous resources to support students and faculty. Finally, Wisconsin was close to home—I am from a suburb of Milwaukee called Franklin, about an hour and a half drive from campus. It was nice to have family nearby and to be able to return home whenever I wanted. I’m glad I found a home at UW–Madison.

Describe how your nursing education has influenced your career or life path.

Gulbrandsen: The combination of pediatric nursing and health systems education provided me with many rich opportunities to think about and address the health needs of children and families in various settings and ways. The combination of knowledge gained from these two backgrounds forced me to think not only of an individual’s care but also about how care might be provided in a much larger context. My professional career has ranged from providing nursing care in a residential setting, a hospital nursery, and a school setting to serving as an administrator in a school setting, managing a range of responsibilities from budgeting to implementing new programs for students and employees. I later managed a non-profit foundation. Designing and implementing that foundation to provide need-based grants to students curiously and once again using the skills fostered through my nursing and health care education at UW–Madison. Nursing is one of the most flexible and profound educations a person can use throughout life. It provides a unique way of looking at issues and executing solutions.

olu Oyesanya ’11, MS’12, PhD’16
olu Oyesanya ’11, MS’12, PhD’16

Oyesanya: My nursing education has been instrumental in my progression to academic nursing. Nursing education helped develop my passion for nursing research. I have had wonderful nursing educators who provided me with foundational knowledge critical to my learning, growth, and development as a nursing scientist. Further, nursing educators taught me how to teach future nurse scientists. I am happy I can pay it forward.

Why did you choose nursing? Did you always know you wanted to be a nurse, or did you explore other options first?

Gulbrandsen: My Grandmother was a nurse, and I respected her work caring for other people. When I graduated from high school, I did not look at a wide array of careers – my only other interest then was to be a math teacher. I was lucky I ended up in a college program of study and a career that I love, which has provided me with numerous and varied career opportunities.

Oyesanya: My mother recently retired from being a registered nurse for over 30 years. She was a neuro rehab nurse for the last 20 years of her career. Not surprisingly, I followed my mother’s footsteps directly into neuro-rehab nursing. While I explored other options first, such as medicine, I found my way to nursing, and I am so happy that I did.

Which role, position, or experience has been the most significant to your nursing career? Why?

Gulbrandsen: Designing, implementing, and managing the Madison Metropolitan School District health services program with a wonderful team of professionals was an amazing opportunity and experience. It showed me the importance of working as a team and helped me realize that new programs don’t “just happen.” They take understanding and implementing everything from establishing a vision to executing it within the existing systems and spaces.

Oyesanya: My role as a tenure-track faculty member has been the most significant in my nursing career. I’ve been able to work with people from different walks of life and across career stages: students, postdocs, faculty, patients, providers, community partners, national organizations, etc. I’ve engaged in education, research, community partnerships, policy, etc. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to contribute in numerous ways. New challenges and opportunities arise regularly, and I love being able to assess needs, problem-solve, adapt, and be flexible to make meaningful contributions.

Which School of Nursing member (faculty, leadership, or staff) had the biggest impact on your experience?

Gulbrandsen: Joy Calkin, Mary Lou Byers, Ruth Redman, and emeritus professor Florence Blake were an outstanding team of professors from whom we learned and practiced nursing care to children with consideration to their growth and development and their illness and health, all within the context of the family, care setting, and community.

Oyesanya: Dr. Barbara Bowers has been an instrumental role model for me. I was lucky enough to have Dr. Bowers serve as my dissertation chair. She was a wonderful mentor, guiding me significantly in numerous areas throughout my dissertation work. Dr. Bowers was incredibly involved in the School; while serving as the associate dean of research, she ran an extremely productive program of research, mentored individuals across career stages inside and outside the university, and engaged in a long list of service-related opportunities. But somehow, she found time to invest in me; she gave me her undivided attention when we met (including 38 meetings just for grounded theory dissertation data analysis), and she shared her wisdom and expertise with me without hesitation. Even after I graduated, Dr. Bowers continued to help and support me. She taught me so many important things that I’ve been able to pass on to my mentees. Thank you, Barb, for all you do for me and everyone!

What advice would you give to recent graduates and young alums?

Gulbrandsen: Enjoy every aspect of nursing practice. The opportunities are endless. Continue to pursue educational opportunities throughout your career. Constantly prepare yourself for opportunities that may come your way and then act on those that inspire you.

Oyesanya: I encourage you to stay connected with your colleagues and create a powerful network of intelligent and successful nurses that you can call on for whatever you may need for the rest of your life. I encourage you to stay engaged with the School of Nursing — go out, do wonderful things, and keep in contact with the school and faculty. I encourage you to give back as alumni and support students who will be the future of nursing. For those of you graduating with your bachelor’s, I encourage you to continue advancing our profession by returning to school to get a PhD or doctorate in nursing practice (DNP), where you will have an opportunity to refine your clinical, research, and leadership skills. And most importantly, always remember that your words of encouragement could be the small motivation someone needs to realize their full potential.

What advice would you give a current nursing student?

Gulbrandsen: Don’t assume that you will stay in one area of nursing practice throughout your professional career. Delve into each clinical rotation and area of study as though it may be your first job. Enjoy your time on campus, learn from one another, and have fun!

Oyesanya: For those in nursing school who will soon enter the nursing workforce, I encourage you to remember that you are not just a nurse. You are the front line of patient care and the key to improving patient outcomes. I encourage you to stay curious and always ask, “Why?” instead of simply doing things the same way because someone tells you, “That’s the way we always have done it.” Now is the time to think about how you want to contribute to nursing. Nursing is a multi-faceted and dynamic profession that allows you to engage in numerous areas, including patient care, education, research, leadership, and administration. You name it, nurses do it. Nurses are the front line of patient care, education, and research and are the key to improving patient, family, and provider outcomes. Nurses, in collaboration with other allied health care professionals, are essential to quality care. Nursing also contributes substantially to knowledge production at institutions of higher learning. Nurses make a real difference. We do exciting work, tackling and embracing all challenges that come our way. How will you contribute to nursing?