School of Nursing Announces the Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Canary Savage Girardeau

The UW–Madison School of Nursing is proud to announce the establishment of a new award. Named in honor of the first Black alumnus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing, The Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion reflects the School of Nursing’s commitment to building health equity through diversity and inclusion in nursing education and health care.

The Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion will be presented to a graduate, current student, faculty, or staff member from the School of Nursing for their notable work or responsive advocacy that reflects the School’s commitment to health equity, diversity, and inclusion. Nominees can be recognized for teaching, scholarship, clinical practice, nursing leadership, nursing research, community service, advocacy, or alumni participation.

Girardeau appreciates the acknowledgement but notes that her work has always been for others and not personal recognition. “It’s certainly an honor and something I never expected,” says Girardeau. “When you’re working a job, you work at doing the best you can, but you also think about the people you’re working with or for and what they need; what will make their lives better. So, you’re not thinking about recognition for yourself. However, it is rewarding to know that my work has had meaning and made an impact.”

Canary Savage Girardeau
Canary Savage Girardeau

Set to be bestowed for the first time in fall 2023, this new annual award was created to highlight an individual’s significant contributions to the nursing profession and the School of Nursing’s legacy of excellence in nursing leadership, all while exemplifying the spirit of the award’s namesake, Canary Savage Girardeau. It will be added to the lineup of annual awards that includes two existing honors that are currently presented — the Distinguished Achievement Award and the Outstanding Badger Nurse Award, which are sponsored by the UW–Madison Nurses Alumni Organization (UW NAO).

Recipients will be exceptional individuals who have made a notable impact through their work or advocacy by focusing on the needs of those whose health status or social condition leaves them vulnerable or places them at risk. They have increased participation in health care research, promoted sharing of diverse interprofessional perspectives, provided tools to support those working with vulnerable populations, and enhanced community engagement or access to resources that promote health and wellbeing.

Girardeau, Cert’55, MS, completed her registered nurse certification at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing and is recognized as the first African American graduate of the School.

She is proud of her Badger nurse background and notes that the level of education she received at the UW–Madison School of Nursing expanded beyond the normal limits of nursing education at the time. “One of the surprising and very pleasing things is that we were able to have some classes along with the medical students, which gave us a deeper understanding of illnesses and processes,” she says. “I never would have had that with just nurses, and UW–Madison School of Nursing gave me that opportunity. I worked with a much more diverse group of people which is very different from what I experienced in other schools I attended and so different than what I would have experienced in any other school of nursing. This makes me proud and should also make UW–Madison just as proud.”

She recalls her three years (1952-1955) spent on the UW–Madison campus as an experience in assimilation — both culturally and educationally. Girardeau was well aware of the potential to be treated uniquely. However, she notes that both instructors and the director squelched idle curiosities by treating Girardeau no differently from her peers.

“There was a curiosity about Blacks,” said Girardeau in a 2005 School of Nursing interview, “but I was not treated differently. … everyone was pleasant. That had a great deal to do with the leadership in the School of Nursing.”

The Class of 1953 (Canary Savage Girardeau in third row).
The Class of 1953 (Canary Savage Girardeau in third row)

To Girardeau, the UW–Madison School of Nursing experience exists in stark contrast to the response she received on a summer’s day in 1952 when searching for a summer rental before entering the nurses’ dormitory that fall. She canvassed all of Langdon Street to find every rental but one closed to her because of race.

Despite the challenges she faced in the community, Girardeau has fond memories of her time at the School of Nursing. “The interaction with my classmates brings back very good feelings,” she says. “The training to become a nurse was so enjoyable, and becoming a nurse is something I’ve wanted to do all my life. I was in an atmosphere where the love of nursing was clearly promoted. When I entered the UW–Madison School of Nursing, I was married and had one child. I then became pregnant with my second child, and my classmates wholeheartedly helped me prepare for my second child and we had a lot of fun in the process. I had worked on the maternity floor the day I was ready to deliver, and when my labor started later at the nurses’ dormitory, I let my nurse friends know. They accompanied me to the hospital and helped deliver the baby because the doctor was running late. That’s a memory I’ll never forget.”

Five years after leaving Madison, Girardeau completed her public health certification in 1961 at Marquette University in Milwaukee. From there, she sought degrees at UW–Milwaukee, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education in 1966, and a master’s degree in educational psychology in 1971.

With a zest for knowledge, Girardeau distinguished herself early as a leader among leaders. In addition to her historical achievement at UW–Madison, she was the first African American to become a senior Girl Scout in Memphis, Tenn., the first African American accepted to Marquette University School of Nursing, one of the founders of Black Educators of Young Black Children, and the developer of the YWCA Young Moms Program in Milwaukee.

Canary Savage Girardeau
Canary Savage Girardeau

After spending the early part of her career in Milwaukee, she moved to Washington, D.C., in 1972 and took on professional roles that included director of training and community development for the Child Development Associate Consortium, home care nurse for the Washington Hospital Center, and nursing services and nurse case manager for the Children’s Hospital National Medical Center and Up John Health Care Services.

In 1989, Girardeau moved to Florida and began a career with the state’s Department of Health. There, she served many roles, including senior registered nurse, senior community health nurse, and nurse program specialist, until her retirement in 2002.

She also garnered many honors and awards: Florida’s Health Manager of the Year Award for her district (1995), Florida Nurse of the Year Award for district two (1997), the State of Florida’s Health Start Program Best Practice Award, one of “100 Great Nurses” named by a district of the Florida Nurses Association (2000), and the Public Health Nurse of the Year Award for the State of Florida (2001).

Girardeau is presently a senior program associate at Summit Health Institute for Research and Education (SHIRE) in Washington, D.C., where she contributes her nursing expertise to the organization and has been instrumental in implementing wellness circles for District of Columbia residents with chronic conditions.

With so many notable achievements throughout her career, Girardeau stresses that she just wants to be remembered as the nurse who made her patients feel comfortable and included in their health care journeys. “I think about the fact that people want to participate in getting well and recovering from any ailment that they have, and as nurses, they want our help!” she says. “They want us to recognize them as an active participant in their healing and want to feel as important in the process as the nurse. However, they are usually scared and don’t know how to participate. As nurses, we show them how, and we show them how participation speeds their recovery. Patients become appreciative and relieved that they can do something themselves. I want to be remembered as the type of nurse who made that happen for her patients.”

Nominations for the inaugural award are open from May 1, 2023, through July 1, 2023, with the award selection set to be completed by July 31, 2023.

Characteristics of a Successful Nominee

  • Nominee is a graduate, student, faculty, staff member, or community partner of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing
  • Demonstrates substantial involvement with historically underserved or marginalized racial, ethnic, and economically disadvantaged communities
  • Demonstrates tangible work towards identifying barriers to health equity, diversity, and inclusion:
    • Proposed or implemented solutions known to reduce or eliminate barriers
    • Provides evidence of barriers removed or reduced, if available
  • Displayed action through advocacy or led an initiative aimed at inclusion or equity
  • Expresses pride, loyalty, and engagement with the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing
  • Provides inspiration for current students, faculty, and alumni as a Badger nurse who has changed lives

Learn more about the award