Q&A with Kelly Wolgast: From Army nurse to assistant dean at Penn State

Lauren Ingram
October 29, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As Penn State celebrates Military Appreciation Week by honoring 100 years of women officially serving in the U.S. armed forces, Kelly Wolgast, assistant dean for online education and outreach in the College of Nursing and a Penn State alumna, shares her experiences as an Army nurse and her path back to the University after retiring from the military.

Originally from Rochester, New York, Wolgast is a 1985 graduate from Penn State’s nursing and Army ROTC programs. During her 26-year military career, Wolgast earned the Bronze Star Medal for heroic or meritorious achievements with combat experience as deputy commander and chief nurse in Afghanistan; served as a hospital deputy commander for relief operations following Hurricane Katrina; and was senior nurse executive of the U.S. Army Medical Command. Along the way, she went back to school and earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate in nursing practice, executive nurse leadership.

Q: Where did your 26-year career in the U.S Army take you?

Wolgast: I was commissioned as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army the same weekend I graduated from Penn State. I’ve been all over the world and served in a variety of clinical and leadership positions. My first tour of duty was in Germany, where I spent three years as a clinical nurse. I served in installations around the country and overseas and have combat and humanitarian experiences in Afghanistan. As I rose in rank and my scope of influence broadened, I became a deputy commander and eventually a commander of a hospital, which was fantastic. My last role was as chief nurse executive of the U.S. Army Medical Command, which was a very broad role where I was able to influence the Army’s nursing practices at a global level. It was a tremendous honor.

Q: Why did you make the decision to pursue a career in nursing?

The “why” is easy — it’s in the family! My mom and aunt are nurses and they were my role models, so I always knew I wanted to take care of people like them, and nursing seemed like a great fit.

Q: Was there also a person in your life that inspired you to join the military?

The military legacy is a little different. I never grew up thinking I’d go into the military, however, when I was in high school, my brother earned a naval ROTC scholarship to go to college. At the time, I thought, “Well I could do that! I’m as smart as he is, so why not?” Much of what I learned in Army ROTC at Penn State set me up for success in my entire military career. It was and still is an amazing program.

Q: Do you have a memory that stands out from your time as an ROTC cadet?

One of the great things that my Army ROTC leaders did for me — since they knew I was the only nurse in the program at the time — was invite the then-chief of the Army Nurse Corps, Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson, to visit Penn State. I got to have lunch with her and I will never, ever forget that. I had never met anyone of that stature in the military before, let alone a female nurse. It was a wonderful thing for my Penn State mentors to do for me. It truly impacted my life.

Q: What was it like being a woman in a male-dominated field when you were coming up?

There were times when it was challenging, but you just have to press through and tackle issues straight on. Nowadays there are a lot more opportunities for women, but when I came in there were very defined roles. Many of the barriers for women in the military have come down and there are more role models for women to aspire to. Today, we can say, “She did it. I can, too.”

I’m appreciative that Penn State has chosen to honor 100 years of women officially in the military this year. Though, women have been affiliated with the military a lot longer than 100 years and nurses have been on the battlefield since the beginning of battle — it’s true that Florence Nightingale walked the Crimean War battlefields with a lamp and her impact on military nursing resonates today. Recognizing and honoring our military veterans and service members on an annual basis is very important, and something that I think we do well year-round at Penn State. Those stories are worth remembering.

Q: What was the most fulfilling thing about being a nurse in the Army?

It’s an honor to wear the cloth of our nation and the American flag on my uniform and to represent America around the world. It’s so rewarding to know that you’ve made a difference in people’s lives from a patient-care perspective. I’ll never forget families and children who came up to me to thank me for caring for a family member in the hospital. At the same time, taking care of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines and their families is very much an honor. We have an amazing military filled with men and women who choose to do this when they don’t have to make that sacrifice. Being able to help them when things are hard and not necessarily all that safe is extraordinarily rewarding.

Q: It sounds like you moved around a lot. Is there a role that stands out?

I moved around about every year or two, and one of the best experiences was helping to influence the health care system in Afghanistan. I spent a year there and we were able to get out into the community and help develop nurses, doctors and their health care logistics system to help them better care for their own people. That was very gratifying under very difficult circumstances.

"Recognizing and honoring our military veterans and service members on an annual basis is very important, and something that I think we do well year-round at Penn State." 

Q: What’s been your greatest accomplishment?

My two children. My daughter is a recent Penn State graduate and my son is at West Point. Professionally, I think my legacy might be as a role model and being able to mentor those who are coming up behind me. I try to make sure the environment in which they’re growing up in is better than what it was when I was their age.

Q: How did you work to do that?

I remember being in uniform as a senior ranking official when a young male soldier came up to me and said, “Ma’am, I just have to talk to you because I have never seen a female colonel before in my entire life.” I was glad I was there to be able to model that for him and that he had enough courage to be able to come up and talk to me. Those one-on-one experiences when you know you’re influencing other people in a good way are so rewarding and what I think we all aspire to do — leaving it better than we found it.  

Q: How has your Penn State education impacted your career?

I met Penn Staters all over the world. If I heard a “We Are” or saw a Penn State flag, I knew they were a kindred spirit! The University is respected worldwide, no matter where I found myself. This place opened doors for me and I’m happy that my path has brought me back.

Q: What’s your focus today as assistant dean and a faculty member?

The mentoring and development part of higher education comes very naturally with what I did in the military. My knowledge and expertise in nursing and executive nurse leadership certainly aligns with what I do in this role, as I’m helping to shape and grow our college’s online nursing programs and portfolio through Penn State World Campus and the Commonwealth Campuses. I also love working on-one-one with my graduate and doctoral students to guide them in their own health care practicums.

Q: What’s the same about the University as when you were a student?

The sidewalks! When I came back for the first time I thought I know exactly where I am. It’s wonderful to see some familiar things as well as all the new buildings, innovation, and the global reach and growth of the University. But our mission hasn’t changed. When I go into Wagner Building, where students still have ROTC training, I walk up those stairs and know my footsteps helped make them worn. Today, 33 years later, students are still here and continuing to wear out those steps. It’s special.

Q: What’s it like for service members and veterans who go to school and work at Penn State?

I’ve always felt welcomed here by leadership, my colleagues and students. Penn State is a friendly place for folks who have served in the military, and that’s important since there are a lot of us here. I know colleagues in various colleges who have retired from service, and we have thousands of military-related students in World Campus and at our campuses. Penn State leadership recognizes our presence and is committed to serving military folks who want to go back to school.  

Q: What inspires you?

I’m inspired to pay it forward. I retired once already, but I want to help build the next generation of nursing professionals. I feel like I still have the ability to continue to have an impact and give back. The energy at Penn State is palpable and it to fuels me every day.

Last Updated October 29, 2018