Fostering Future Nurse Leaders Through Pediatrics

Posted: November 30, 2021

Pictured above left to right are Dr. Vicki Hensley and Dr. Morgan Chojnacki. 

Vicki Hensley, PhD, APRN-CPNP, and Morgan Chojnacki, DNP, APRN, CPNP-PC, are proud of their roles as nurse leaders in the field and in the classroom. As assistant professors at the UK College of Nursing, both teach a pediatrics course that is so intensive, many undergraduates say they invest more time in preparing for it than their peers who are studying in graduate-level programs.

Fortunately for students, Dr. Hensley and Dr. Chojnacki understand the stress and anxiety that can come with tackling new material, so they balance rigor with support and compassion. As former Universtiy of Kentucky College of Nursing students themselves, both Dr. Hensley (BSN 2000, MSN 2005, PhD 2015) and Dr. Chojnacki (BSN 2009, DNP 2015) also recognize the value of fostering confidence and leadership characteristics within the clinic and classroom settings. They each greatly benefited from their experiences as students and want to “pay it forward” by mentoring the next generation of pediatric nurses and nurse leaders.

More nurses are taking on leadership roles because their expertise and management abilities are needed to ensure positive patient outcomes and improve professional collaborations. Nurse leaders are nurses who want to tackle complex patient care issues or who want to focus on high-level organizational and administrative challenges.

“The nursing profession is changing, and more and more nurses recognize that they need to be part of the decision-making process, for themselves, their teams, and their patients,” says Dr. Chojnacki.

Nurses are more empowered in the workplace, and a big part of this is because of their education, which makes them more confident. I push my students in the classroom because I want them to be confident; I want them to lead.”

It all starts in the classroom 

“Hensley and Chojnacki are very popular professors,” says Dr. Kristin Ashford, associate dean of undergraduate faculty and interprofessional education affairs at the UK College of Nursing. “Students appreciate them for their depth of knowledge, especially in pediatrics, and their clear commitment to student success.”

Both professors go out of their way to support students, including sending them personal messages of encouragement or congratulations and meeting with them to review test questions and answers. Hensely is known to pass out candy to students before grueling exams and gives them scratch paper with positive affirmations printed on them.

“I feel that it’s my job to mentor my students and to meet them where they are at the time,” says Dr. Hensley. “Through my teaching, I promote critical thinking and reasoning skills and help them believe in themselves so they can move to the next level.”

Both professors are also products of the UK College of Nursing. Dr. Hensley received her bachelor’s degree in 2000, her master’s in 2005, and her Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing in 2015. Dr. Chojnacki received her bachelor’s degree in 2009 and her Doctor of Nursing practice degree in 2015. Besides her full-time teaching responsibilities, Dr. Chojnacki is also a pediatric nurse practitioner at the Kentucky Children’s Hospital’s Adolescent Medicine Clinic.

Dr. Hensley served as a mentor to Dr. Chojnacki during her early studies, and the two colleagues continue to support one another in their professional lives

What students gain in the pediatric nursing course is invaluable, even if they don’t end up being pediatric nurses,” says Dr. Hensley.

“A student going into mental health nursing told me that he refers back to his pediatric experience to remember what he learned about the importance of connecting with a patient. The course helps every student to become a well-rounded nurse.”

Nursing students take a foundational course in pediatric development and health promotion in their sophomore year and a second pediatric course their junior year. Both courses are rigorous, and Drs. Hensley and Chojnacki are clear that they expect students to not only learn how to care for children and advocate for them but also to teach parents and guardians how to care for children after they leave the hospital or examination room.

This educational element is just as critical as medicine and medical interventions, and it’s also the cornerstone of creating nurse leaders.

Student Katelyn Agdanowski is part of Dr. Chojnacki’s clinical group and is also in her nursing practice intern program. “Professor Chojnacki has helped me to grow as an individual and as an aspiring nurse leader by showing me the importance of serving as a patient advocate and by serving as the last line of defense for our patients to make sure no errors are made in their care,” she says. “I am incredibly grateful to work with her and have her as a mentor because she has so much experience working with patients and is a true pediatric nurse through and through.”

Dr. Chojnacki connects with students who want to excel. She chose the University of Kentucky for her nursing studies because she knew she would be challenged. “I knew I wanted to care for people but that I also wanted to make a difference,” she says. “Going through the undergrad program at the College of Nursing prepared me to be an excellent nurse, but it also provided me with experiences and insights that set me ahead of many of my peers.”

Looking back, Dr. Chojnacki says that an experience she had working as a research intern with Dr. Kristen Ashford also helped her to realize that she wanted to be more than a nurse; she wanted to be a nurse leader.

“Because of that research internship, I was able to make connections in an obstetrics unit at UK HealthCare; and after graduation, I was hired to work in that same unit,” she says. “I loved working in that unit, and it’s where I realized that I wanted to go back to school so that I could diagnose and prescribe.”

Confident students = confident leaders

As part of their pediatrics course, Drs. Hensley and Chojnacki also lead clinicals, during which they encourage and push students to engage in conversations with pharmacists and physicians. Although students are hesitant to speak with people they see as superiors, the professors urge them to speak up.

“I am notorious for pushing students to call the pharmacy to question a dosing issue,” says Dr. Chojnacki. “I stand next to them when they make the call because they feel so much pressure; they know that a patient’s life is on the line.”

The ability to question and even challenge another member of the health care team is crucial in nurse leadership roles, so Drs. Chojnacki and Hensley insist that their students experience the tension of the moment.

“Coming through difficult courses and clinical situations sets our students up for success because it gives them a lot of reassurance,” says Dr. Hensley. “They start to think of themselves as nurses, not nursing students. They feel their nursing brains developing, and they feel more confident about their abilities.”

Both professors hope every student who comes through their pediatrics course leaves it feeling motivated to do bigger things and to hopefully tackle nurse leadership roles at some point in their career.

“I encourage students to seek leadership roles so that they can make the changes they want to see,” says Dr. Chojnacki. “I tell them that when they have a seat at the table, they can influence decisions and make meaningful impacts on the lives of their colleagues, patients and families.”