Nurse’s Perspective Enhances Local School Board

April 2013Diana Austin

Carmen Ward-Sullivan, a PhD student at UCSF School of Nursing, has spent 28 years caring for patients in the intensive care and open-heart units at Summit Medical Center in Oakland. In 2008, she added to her résumé a seat on the San Leandro School Board, serving as an elected trustee for a four-year term that ended in December 2012.

The two experiences, she says, aren’t as different as one might think. “They’re both about making decisions for people who aren’t always able to make decisions for themselves. We do it as nurses, thinking clinically about what’s best for our patients, and we do it working for the schools, where you have a huge impact on students and families.”

Creating a Health Center for Ninth-Graders

Ward-Sullivan’s desire to run for the school board was born, in part, from her concerns about student and community health. When her younger daughter opted to go to the local public high school, Ward-Sullivan made numerous visits to the school.

“I saw things looking in from the outside that maybe the staff didn’t see because they were in the middle of it,” she says. For example, she saw evidence of marijuana use among the students, and noticed that the food choices many made weren’t very healthy.

Ward-Sullivan’s interest coincided with a district plan to build a new ninth-grade campus. She thought it would be the perfect opportunity to create a teen health center that could provide health education, as well as some psychological services, to help students make better choices and, hopefully, set the stage early for a healthier lifetime.

The best way to ensure it got off the ground, says Ward-Sullivan, was to run for the board. Although no one in her family had ever run for elected office before, she took the leap, collecting information and seeking advice from other, more experienced candidates and elected officials. Her strategy paid off, and she won.

Learning to work with others was a challenge at first. “I quickly realized that it wasn’t just my opinion that counted; it was six other board members,” she says. “So I had to learn to work with them and convince them that this was a good idea for our city and our school.” Ward-Sullivan eventually prevailed, and the teen health center is slated to open later this year as part of the new, dedicated ninth-grade campus within San Leandro High School.

During Ward-Sullivan’s tenure – a time of steep budget cuts – the San Leandro School Board managed to keep health and safety at the forefront of their efforts. They lobbied hard to pass a pair of funding measures that updated both school buildings and athletic fields – an improvement, Ward-Sullivan notes, that benefits the health of the entire community because the new fields will be available to everyone, not just students.

Expanding the Menu of Choices for Minority Students

Creating choices, especially for those who historically have fewer, was an important theme in Ward-Sullivan’s work with the board. Dismayed at the relatively low test scores and high dropout rates for the district’s African American and Latino students, she thought back to an experience that had helped her own family.

She had attended an educational summit with her younger daughter at California State University’s East Bay campus that provided extensive information on helping families navigate the difficult decisions related to selecting and financing a college education. She was astonished at the number of students who had come from miles around, hungry for information, and thought that something similar would be a big benefit in San Leandro, particularly for African American and Latino students. So she made it happen.

Ward-Sullivan brainstormed with parents and talked to people she knew would be good speakers and role models, particularly those who could speak to the unique challenges minority students may face when making decisions about college. Among them was Ammar Saheli, a school-district administrator, minister and CEO of a private educational consulting company, who spoke at one summit about being the only African American in his college class. Saheli stressed the importance of finding mentors.

“The idea was to just open the doors to ideas,” says Ward-Sullivan. “Part of the problem is that people don’t even know what to ask – a common refrain is ‘I didn’t know I could consider college. I didn’t know I could have someone mentor me.’ We wanted to let them know that there were choices after high school and people to help.”

Although she’s no longer on the school board, Ward-Sullivan continues to help plan these educational summits because she recognizes on a personal level the impact a little encouragement can have.

Continuing Her Own Education

Ward-Sullivan’s career as a nurse began with a little encouragement from her parents – who urged her to find a profession that would enable her to support herself comfortably “sooner rather than later” – and her paternal grandmother, a nurse-midwife in Mississippi. “She told me that it was a ‘fine and honorable profession,’” says Ward-Sullivan. The science courses she took at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland clinched the deal. “I was now hooked on becoming a nurse,” she says.

An associate degree in nursing and RN credential enabled her to work at Samuel Merritt Hospital (now Summit Medical Center), and in 2008, Ward-Sullivan became an adjunct clinical instructor in nursing at Oakland’s Samuel Merritt University. She found she enjoyed it so much that she wanted to expand her teaching role. When she asked a faculty member for advice, she was told she should get her PhD.

Ward-Sullivan says she thought, “Oh, my. I don’t know if I can do that. It was so outside my line of thinking.” But the notion intrigued her, and after completing her BSN at Sonoma State University in 2010, she enrolled in UCSF School of Nursing’s PhD program, in the Department of Physiological Nursing. She found a mentor in Chris Miaskowski, associate dean for Academic Affairs and Sharon A. Lamb Endowed Chair in Symptom Management Research, and is now studying symptom clusters in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

Ward-Sullivan maintains her interest in politics, and one of her goals is to create incentives for more nurses to pursue doctoral degrees. To remedy the nursing shortage, says Ward-Sullivan, we have to make it more attractive for experienced clinical nurses to get PhDs and go into teaching. Even if she herself doesn’t run for another office, Ward-Sullivan intends to use her experience and connections to effect change for nurses and patients.

“I want to keep my finger in politics,” she says. “Through my friendships, I can get our voices heard and change policy.”