A World-Class Career Foundation

By: Robert Hess, RN, PhD, FAAN, Executive Vice President, Gannett Education, Global Programming
Hess delivered the commencement speech at Seton Hall University’s 2013 graduation. Here he shares his 40 years of nursing wisdom with the next generation of nurses.
Robert Hess, RN, PhD, FAAN

Robert Hess, RN, PhD, FAAN

Several times in my career I sat where you are, at the end of one journey, ready to begin the next. I know how hard it is to juggle your personal life with the student role, and I admire you for successfully negotiating it. I was happy to finally be done with school. However, although this graduation is a landmark in your education, it’s probably not the last. You need to become life-long students, one way or another.

What I think you need to know and what you want to know is this: You are about to reap the gains of one of the best decisions you’ve ever made in your life. Sometime in the past, you decided to go back to school, and you had a dizzying array of choices. One thing you can bet on is that the program you selected changed your life in some way. By picking Seton Hall University, you’ve won a career lottery. You have a world-class career foundation, an edge that many don’t have.

Almost 40 years ago, my diploma school had prepared me to enter a measured, serene terrain with comfortable choices. But the land through which you guide your careers is frenetic and supercharged — a retooled, cyber-enhanced frontier that has blasted us out of complacency to create new opportunities for healthcare professionals that are not even clear to our own leaders. But you can trust that your program has prepared you well.

And you are entering a land of plenty. As consummate career strategists, you are gunning up your careers just when the most uncertain nursing shortage in the history of America will boil to hot frenzy. For years, researchers have predicted a shortage 4X bigger than any other. Now with a recent surge of younger graduates, a delay in retirement by older nurses, and a looming consumption of healthcare by an aging population, no one knows what’s going to happen. But one thing is certain, a huge horde of baby boomers, read Bob Hess, is going to need you.

About 30 years ago, I was a master’s student in nursing administration at Seton Hall, taking classes in the evening with a world-class faculty and applying what I learned during the evening to my day job as a nursing director, the best of all possible worlds. So by the time I graduated, I had already gained a sizable store of knowledge and expertise. For good measure, I stayed on for a while as faculty, while my career soared, mostly because of Seton Hall.

Six years later I went back for another degree. For some of us, formal education doesn’t end until a terminal degree is achieved. I was in my 40s and one of the oldest students in my doctoral cohort at Penn. I had to quit my full-time job to complete the core classes. I remember when I got home on the first day, there was a black knapsack on the breakfast room table. I asked my wife what that was for, and she told me, “I want you to look like all the other kids.” I tried to fit in. For those of you who completed the DNP & PhD programs, I hope you’re proud. It was one of the hardest, but most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life. Because of that degree, doors that I didn’t even know were there opened.

But there are doors that you don’t want to know about. Like walking into a hospital as a patient, and believe me, being a nurse does not prepare you to be one. That was evident to me even before I got to Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ for the repair of my abdominal aortic aneurysm this past February. As a former critical care nurse with years of experience, I began to ready myself for this not-so-elective procedure days in advance — on a conceptual level only, that is, as I found out when I was admitted.

I’m a happy, half-full kind of guy, but when the anesthesiologist approached me and said he wanted to take me into a room and put something like an IV into my artery, I almost bolted. “You want to put an art line in me?” I squawked.

As the reality set in that I was about to become a critical care patient, I was somewhere between anxious and terrified, but I did as my colleagues had advised and gave myself over to the process and professionals in place. I’m glad I did.

I’ve had a lot of procedures in the past few years, trying to stay healthy and live forever like the rest of my baby boomer friends. The striking component of my patient experience has been the nurses. I’ve not encountered a nurse who wasn’t everything I idolize in my profession. I’m not naïve — this is just what I’ve experienced. With the aneurysm, the nursing care I received was expert, effective, caring, and phenomenal. I can be a great critic when it comes to nursing and uniquely situated to judge, according to me. In particular, Holly, simply a great nurse, took care of me for 12 long hours through the night of my operation. I had a few glitches with preexisting problems and a squirrely mean arterial pressure, about which I hammered her, but she handled those issues and me deftly.  She kept me comfortable, safe, and informed, as she cared for me, a worried nurse caught in the patient role. How great is that? I told her that I’d be carrying her praises around in my extensive national and international contacts for some time. Like many of our colleagues, so focused on her work, she didn’t seem to a care.

But today is about you, and I’m never more proud to be from Seton Hall. As I consume healthcare like a bandit, I give thanks to you for being my colleagues and even more gratitude knowing that some of you might be my nurses. Thanks for that.

I think this is point where I’m supposed to impart points of wisdom, so here are three I’ll leave you with:

1. Never stop learning. Whether it’s continuing education, casual learning, or a formal academic program, you need to go back to school, forever.

2. Life is like high school. Work on being popular. It’s not enough in the professional job market to be smart and credentialed. People hire the people they like.

3. Learn to lead by associating with leaders. Pathways to leadership can be different, but research has shown that the most important element in becoming a leader is the influence of other leaders. Put people with leadership potential around leaders, and they will breed new leaders like rabbits.

The happiest professionals I know are those who are fully engaged in learning, popular with others, and surrounded by the best colleagues. Take these simple truths with your newly minted diploma from Seton Hall University, and you’ll be assured a world-class career. Congratulations.


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