Meet some of the nursing alumni fighting on the pandemic's front lines

Ray Schmitt
May 11, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The global spread of COVID-19 has created unparalleled adversity across all walks of life. It has also provided a real-time glimpse at how Penn State's College of Nursing carries out its mission to "develop qualified nurse leaders at all levels of practice."

Throughout the world, Penn State nursing alumni are taking on leadership roles by applying their clinical, research and educational skills in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In celebration of National Nursing Week, the College of Nursing asked alumni to weigh in on how they are helping their communities fight the pandemic.

Virginia Sharff

Medical-Surgical/PCU Nurse in Orange County, New York

Q: How has Penn State prepared you for success as a nurse?

A: I have nothing but gratitude for the education I received at Penn State. After two years as a float nurse at my hospital, I took a position in a newly created unit called the Clinical Decision Area (CDA). There we cover a broad range of pre-op, post-op and cardiac catheterization patients who are not well enough to go home, yet not critical enough for more than 48-hour admission.

I was also in one of the first COVID-19 units established in our hospital. It was then and still is scary, to say the least. In these situations, though, I always feel confident and comfortable in the skills and knowledge I gained from Penn State. My professors’ voices are still echoing in my head about proper sterile techniques and personal protective equipment (PPE) in every aspect of serving my patients.

Q: How would you say you embrace Penn State’s “We Are” spirit in your day-to-day work?

A: I think it’s by being a part of a community that serves others. My favorite aspects of nursing are watching people get better and being one of the reasons that they get to return to a better quality of life. There's nothing more satisfying than going home from work with the knowledge that you've done something to make other's lives happier, healthier, and longer. Also, it's terrific that Penn State nurses are recognized nationwide, and that recognition provides resources and opportunities for anyone who comes through the College of Nursing.

Lola Oguntade

Facility Administrator at US Renal Care in Marlton, New Jersey

Q: How has your experience at Penn State impacted your nursing career?'

A: Penn State prepared me to be a great nurse, leader, and educator. Those qualities are essential when dealing with a crisis like COVID-19. My position as a facility administrator at a dialysis center, the ability to build a great team and helping the clinic achieve its overall success are the result of the knowledge I gained at Penn State.

Q: How do you think Penn State’s “We Are” spirit shows through in your work?

A: I think by caring for others, those who are unable to care for themselves and using my skills to impact their lives and overall health. I enjoy seeing improvement from critical health to a patient becoming independent and going back to their lifestyle. It's not easy to fulfill our oath to provide quality care in service to others who are sick. There aren't joyful moments every day. Fulfilling that duty, though, is why we choose to provide care and why we are passionate about being nurses.

Jennifer Kelly-Connolly

Nursing Faculty and Childbirth Program Coordinator, University of Pennsylvania

Q: How has Penn State prepared you to meet the demands of being a nurse?

A: I feel that Penn State's College of Nursing gave me the strength and grit I needed to become a passionate and successful nurse. The program is challenging, yet with the help and guidance of the fantastic nursing faculty, I was able to accomplish my dream. Also, I learned how crucial nursing faculty is when it comes to student success.

I want to share a fun story about teaching my nursing students from my home office. In an effort to connect with them in a virtual environment, I sent a picture of my holding my two pets: Penelope, my duck, and Bun-Bun, my bunny. They certainly got a chuckle from it, and I hope, if even just for a minute, it helped them forget about the challenging times we are facing.

Q: How do you think Penn State's "We Are" spirit comes through in your work?

A: I think through empathy, compassion, and love. They are imperative to success as a nurse. Also, by working hard to help students succeed.

Jamie Harwood

Peoria County Coroner in Peoria, Illinois

Q: How has Penn State’s College of Nursing prepared you for your career?

A: I would not be in my current position if not for my Penn State education. It was a phenomenal experience that prepared me for the death investigation process and provided me with an incredible career. My education and past professional background have given me insight into disaster preparedness and fatality management, which help in dealing with COVID-19. I have worked with local and state officials in a capacity I'm not sure I would have been able to, had I not received a dignified education from Penn State.

Q: How do you see Penn State’s “We Are” spirit show up in your work?

A: My passion for nursing has always been helping people through the scariest and most vulnerable times in their lives. You get to provide care and compassion while holistically meeting their needs. My job today deals with death and the dying system, which is very difficult to navigate, and I have the responsibility to walk people through that complicated process. When someone passes away, it's a sacred moment; the human connection made during this time is the most fulfilling and rewarding part of my nursing work. I’m proud to be a Penn State grad, Class of 2015! We Are!

"We Are" stories

The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment — and we want to hear your “We Are” stories.

Visit to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by novel coronavirus. We are!

Last Updated May 11, 2020