May 18, 2001

Founder’s Medalist drives to succeed

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School of Nursing Dean Colleen Conway-Welch congratulates this year's Founder's Medalist Leah Akers-Bell. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Founder’s Medalist drives to succeed

It’s a good thing Leah Akers-Bell likes to drive.

In her two years of study at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, she put more than 65,000 miles on her car.

All of this to earn her MSN in Midwifery.

“I entered the program in August 1998 through the Bridge Program,” Akers-Bell said. “I was attracted to the VUSN program because it allowed me to commute. Other programs either required that I move my entire family or deal with a 7-hour commute.

“The program was manageable. Instead of going through a move, my family just had to deal with the trauma of mom being gone throughout the week.”

Akers-Bell, 42, was able to live with her aunt in Madison, a community less than 10 miles from the school, and focus her weekdays on her studies. Weekends were dedicated to her family, more than 200 miles away.

“Most weekends I was able to get home,” she said. “Sometimes it was just for 24 hours; other times it was for 48 hours. I remember having to ask the question, ‘Was it just hard or was it harmful to my daughters for me to be away?’ One night, barely three weeks into the program, I called my husband in the middle of night to tell him I was heading home.”

“He told me to stay put. It was all going to be OK,” she said, recalling the fears of separation. “I was able to work through that tough question. We all survived.”

Akers-Bell did more than just survive. She was able to complete the seven-semester program with top honors.

During graduation ceremonies, she was named the Founder’s Medalist for the School of Nursing, as well as the outstanding student in the Nurse Midwifery specialty. The Founder’s Medal signifies first honors and is conferred annually on the student who, in the judgement of the faculty, has achieved the strongest record in the areas of professional and academic performance.

“Receiving that award really blew me away,” she said. “It still seems like a dream. I knew that my GPA qualified me as a candidate. It was enough for me to know that the school felt I was of the caliber to be considered.”

Before Akers-Bell entered the School of Nursing, she had worked as the director of admissions at a theological seminary, pastored a small Presbyterian Church in Indiana and spent some time as a stay-at-home mom. She knew that eventually she would explore another career in order to reach her longtime goal – to become a bi-vocational pastor (a person trained in ministry but who has another career).

She began the journey of self-discovery to determine what to do. She found that she was very detail-oriented, liked intense, long-term relationships and was fascinated with pregnancy.

“If that was not a calling, I don’t know what would be,” she said. “Nursing seems to bring all of what I want to do and be together into one entity. “

For now, Akers-Bell has put her role as a pastor on hold. She said the same qualities that she relied on as a pastor – people skills, a willingness to be on call 24/7 and the call to serve – will he useful in her new role as a certified nurse-midwife. She recently passed her certification exam.

She will join another certified nurse-midwife and five nurse practitioners in a nurse-run practice in Indiana. The clinic serves three counties and a medically underserved population of nearly 10,000.

Akers-Bell said she learned far more than midwifery during her time at VUSN. She walked away with a greater sense of accomplishment on several levels.

“I discovered that if I want to do something I can,” she said. “I found that if I work with my husband we can make things work as a unit. It requires communication.”

She also applauds VUSN with giving her the opportunity.

“I was 40 years old when I started this program,” she said. “I was thrilled to learn that my college credits were accepted. Not all programs do that. It sent a strong message – VUSN values us.

“The school takes a chance on people like me. I had no prior experience in nursing and this program makes it possible for people outside of the nursing realm to enter. I will always appreciate that because I was able to attain my goal.”

Akers-Bell was one of 233 Nursing School graduates.

Several students received distinguished awards as well as honors in their specialties. Sandra Rosalba Ermini and Gina L. Tschanz received the Amy Frances Brown Prize for Excellence in Writing, established in 1965. John Mario Gotelli received the Luther Christman Award for Clinical Excellence in the Bridge Year, established in 1998. Judy Jean Chapman, MN, RN, senior associate in Emergency Medicine, was honored by the University during commencent services. She was bestowed the title of Professor of Nursing Emerita.

School of Nursing Specialty Awards were presented to:

Richard James Johnson, III – Acute Care Nurse Practitioner.

Nikki Harris Wood – Adult Nurse Practitioner.

Jason Adam Armstrong – Family Nurse Practitioner.

John Mario Gotelli – Gerontological Nurse Practitioner.

Delia Ruth Nickolaus – Health Systems Management.

Libertad Orellana Raibstein – Neonatal Nurse Practitioner.

Allison Elisabeth Lasiter – Pediatric Nurse Practitioner.

Deora K. Johnson – Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner.

Amy Elizabeth Freeman Williams – Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner.