GV names new dean of Kirkhof College of Nursing


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Joseph Poulos, Staff Writer

On Nov. 14, Grand Valley State University announced the appointment of Patricia Thomas as dean of its Kirkhof College of Nursing (KCON).

Thomas, who has worked extensively with GVSU in the past and is currently the associate dean for faculty affairs at Wayne State University, will begin her new role on Jan. 6.

Thomas said she is excited to return to GVSU and continue working with students to help them in their educational pursuits.

“The one thing I am looking forward to the most is the commitment to educating exceptional nurses,” Thomas said. “I am excited about the possibilities that lie before us. There’s plenty of opportunity in our partnership with Corwell Health that helps us build support around transitioning nurses. For me, it is the ability to lead this incredible team of faculty and staff and to extend and expand our partnerships in the community for both the benefit of our students and the development of our first-class workforce.”

Thomas, who was previously employed with KCON from 2016 to 2019, looks back on her time with GVSU fondly.

“I came in as assistant dean for practice in KCON,” Thomas said. “In 2018, I was promoted to associate dean for practice in the college. The college has always been committed to developing practice partnerships and making connections to the community to really understand the health needs of people in the hospital setting. We forged new partnerships in the community so that our students would have great clinical experiences. I am most proud of that, followed by the partnerships that allowed our faculty to practice and participate in health systems as clinicians and experts.”

She was also quick to point out the circumstances of her departure due to family obligations. She considers herself lucky that things worked out – both for her family and in her educational pursuits with the students of GVSU.

“When I left in 2019, my daughter and son-in-law had a very high-risk pregnancy,” Thomas said. “Today, my two three-year-old granddaughters are doing great. When I left, it was to support them and to be available to my family. My family needed me, and we didn’t have any family that could help them.”

When it comes to research and new learning opportunities for nursing students, Thomas is looking forward to picking up where she left off with KCON.

“The college has been successful in research and grant funding the last several years,” Thomas said. “We will continue to expand that work and that focus we have had on both the education of nurses in the undergrad, graduate and doctoral level, but also the expanding workforce. Those things will continue and have been ongoing. I will continue to do that work as we go forward, and we hope to engage students in this work and give them some different experiences about how nursing is perceived and how we do work in nursing that really transcends location.”

The goals of GVSU have always been meaningful to Thomas, who expressed her gratitude at having another opportunity to work with the faculty and students at the college.

“My reason for coming back to GVSU is that the mission and the vision and the commitment that GVSU has made in their day-to-day work is inspiring to me,” Thomas said. “It aligns with my personal and professional goals. It is who I am as a nurse and a leader, and I am looking forward to the possibilities.”

Helping students develop their skills in their chosen profession of nursing, Thomas said, has always been the most important thing to her during her time in academia.

“I think my favorite part about working with students is their energy and enthusiasm to learn and knowing they are leaning into their dream of becoming a nurse,” Thomas said. “When you see them catch on and realize they’re actually doing those things that they came to learn, that is incredible.”

As far as Thomas’ own choice to go into nursing, she cites family friends as inspiration for her decision to choose a job that would help better her community.

“I knew I was going to be a nurse since I was a young kid, but I don’t have a parent or relative that did it,” Thomas said. “One of my grandparent’s friends was a nurse and I remember talking to her in childhood and she made a difference, and she made me realize that that’s what I wanted to do. She talked about her patients and their families in the communities and what they shared with her about her being there with them in their time of need that really made a difference.”

As Thomas chose to expand her career into education as well, she spent a lot of time juggling her college coursework with her work life.

“When I went into nursing school, I was in a 3-in-1 program,” Thomas said. “I was putting myself through school with student loans and scholarships. After my third year, I decided I needed to get out and get to work. I went home and worked every weekend and Friday and Monday for two years to be able to have income and benefits when I went to school. I gave up weekends and holidays, and then ten years later I went back. I worked three jobs to make ends meet, and we did not have online classes then.”

These times of multitasking and striving towards a greater goal helped Thomas realize her affinity for helping others to do the same.

“When I was doing that, I made a promise to myself and every other aspiring nursing student that when I had the opportunity to make it easier for someone else to go back to school, that I would do that,” Thomas said. “I wanted to be able to pay that forward. I knew we needed to come together and make it simpler for people to come back to school to finish their education.”

Thomas earned her associate degree in nursing from Lake Superior State University, as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from the University of Michigan. She also has a doctorate in philosophy from Walden University in Minnesota.

In her pursuit of different kinds of knowledge, she found that philosophy offered benefits to her leadership ability that eventually helped her career in many ways.

“My focus was leadership and organizational change,” Thomas said. “I have been a proponent of leadership. For me, it was about beginning to expand my knowledge about other parts of the industry. While I am very engaged with nursing as far as expertise and practice, I realized that in order to make changes for patients and community, I needed to expand my own knowledge. That is why I chose that route.”

During her time at Wayne State University, Thomas was a vocal proponent of extending COVID-19 vaccination clinics to Detroit residents who were not associated with a primary care provider.

“I was associate dean for faculty affairs at Wayne State, where I was involved with mentoring and growing and developing our nursing faculty and responsible for operations,” Thomas said. “During the pandemic, work was very different. I actually worked with the city of Detroit and Henry Ford Health System and members of the college of nursing and medicine to establish vaccination clinics to people that would not have had access, whether it was because of transportation or because they were in homeless shelters, where they were not affiliated with a primary care provider or health system.”

This effort eventually proved to be fruitful for both the community and the students, who got to take part in activities that directly led to more citizens becoming vaccinated.

“We brought out nursing faculty and students into that process as well,” Thomas said. “It was a unique program, an all-volunteer effort. We went to spaces where others were not, churches, senior centers, homeless shelters, so that was tremendously rewarding work which was an important element of the city of Detroit’s response to the pandemic. It actually offered a lot of hope when the vaccine became available, and prior to that, we had all been in isolation and not having much contact but also had to watch how devastating COVID-19 could be, and Detroit had high populations of incredibly vulnerable people. It brought hope and a sense of participating in what was going to be necessary to help us through the pandemic.”

Citing this as a great moment to get involved with nursing, Thomas was quick to comment on the current state of affairs in nursing as she viewed them.

“I think Michigan is experiencing a nursing shortage that has been with us for several decades,” Thomas said.  “It has been really exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic and there is tremendous work underway across the country and certainly in Michigan to continue to develop a strong working nursing workforce. There is also tremendous attention in creating a work environment for our students that brings joy and meaning to the work they’re doing.”

Thomas is optimistic about the future of the field as the profession changes and new opportunities open up for students who want to try different things.

“The one thing I can say about the future of nursing is that we typically think of nursing practice in acute care hospital settings, but there are more options in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries as well,” Thomas said. “There are avenues opening up in commerce for nurses, especially in home care and hospice and long term care, and all of these areas are clamoring for nursing. You will be able to find employment in your area of practice. The outlook is incredibly strong for nurses across the state and across the country. We can all appreciate they were well in excess of our typical work days. The future for nursing is bright and shining.”