Delaware County Leadership: Mary Powell, Dean, College of Nursing and Health Professions, Immaculata University

Mary Powell
Image via Immaculata University
Mary Powell

Mary Powell, dean of the new College of Nursing and Health Professions at Immaculata University, spoke with DELCO Today about growing up in Delaware County and the experiences that shaped her as a teenager, like getting a part-time job as a nursing assistant to pay for contact lenses and going on a six-week trip to France with her school’s French Club.

Powell described how she started her nursing career with a diploma program at Chester County Hospital, then went on to earn several advanced degrees, including her doctorate. Now, as she takes on the role of dean, she discussed the importance of health literacy, community service, and being a prudent risk-taker.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born the oldest of three children in Chester at the old Sacred Heart Hospital, so I’m a Delco girl. I grew up in Prospect Park, and my folks moved to Wallingford when I was about 12 or 13.

What did your parents do for a living?

My dad was a draftsman at Westinghouse in southwest Philadelphia. My mom was a stay-at-home mom until all of us were launched, then she went back to college and got an associate’s degree.

What do you remember about growing up in Wallingford?

We had great neighbors, and we had a group of kids who would come over and play pool in our basement. We had the best time. No matter who was around, there was always somebody to hang out with.

Did you have any part-time jobs when you were growing up?

I did! I wore, and I still wear really thick glasses. Back in high school, I wanted contact lenses. My folks said no, so I earned the money to get them. My parents were very fair, and they said, “If you do that, we’ll pay for half.”

I was a nursing assistant at Manchester Health in Media on the weekends and summers starting in 11th grade. I worked there all through 12th grade and saved up money for contact lenses.

While in nursing school, I worked very occasionally at the local VFW in West Chester. I was 19. I got great tips, but I didn’t do it too often because there was a group of us who would take turns. For the most part nursing school kept me pretty busy.

What lessons did you take from those jobs that stick with you today?

To honor my commitments, and to work hard. If you say you’re going to work on Saturday, it doesn’t matter if a party’s coming up. I learned…and frankly am still learning…that you need to let your yes mean yes and to follow through.

I loved the nursing home job, getting to know the residents and learning how to take really good care of them, with them and for them. I had some nurse good role models there.

What about sports? Did you do any sports in high school?

I didn’t do any official sports, but I was a swimmer. We belonged to Prospect Park Pool, and I was on the swim team there in the summer. I was a pretty good backstroker in my day.

What activities did you do to distinguish yourself in high school?

I was on the yearbook for all four years, and I was one of the section editors. I also got to go to France with the French club for six weeks. I saved money by collecting old newspapers and cans from neighbors and relatives. It was a very unique experience and helped me understand the value of working hard and saving towards a goal.

What kind of music floated your boat when you were growing up?

I listened to the old AM radio station called WIBG. I would wake up to that in the morning. I enjoyed all the music of the ‘70s.

Where did you end up going to college, and why there?

I was right on the cusp of the diploma nursing schools versus the baccalaureate nursing programs. I had a few cousins who were nurses, and they all went to hospitals of nursing. I’m a first-generation college student, so my parents were very supportive of whatever I wanted to do, but they didn’t give me much direction.

Because I had cousins who I was close with, I ended up at nursing school. I was accepted at two diploma programs – the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson University. But honestly, I was scared to go into the city.  At the eleventh hour, I decided to look at other programs.

I ended up at Chester County Hospital School of Nursing, and it was the right decision. I got a wonderful education and faculty at Chester County encouraged critical thinking.  It was a 36-month program – I had two weeks off in the summer and worked every other weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed nursing school.

I met my husband, Rick, who is not a nurse but went to Williamson College of the Trades. There was a Bible study that the Chester County girls and the Williamson boys went to, and a romance was born.

Looking back, was Chester County Hospital a good choice for you?

It was. Had I gone right to a baccalaureate program, I think I would have had a very different career trajectory, because there were very few baccalaureate-prepared nurses in the day. My parents would have supported that, but as I said, I was a first-generation student, and I’m not sure I would have been successful. Looking back, I’m not sure I was ready for a college experience right after high school.

At Chester County Hospital, the first year of nursing school cost $300 for uniform, book, room, board, everything. The second year was $600, and the third year was $1,200. It was a good choice.

The days of diploma education for nursing are certainly over, and I believe baccalaureate preparation for nursing is the way to go, if I was advising anybody. But for me, in the mid-seventies, it was the right path.

Looking back over your career, who saw promise in you and opened up doors?

I’ve had some great mentors along the way. Fast forward a few years – I worked at Riddle Hospital, I was a charge nurse, I was a supervisor – so certainly they saw something in me. I went to Eastern College for my RN to BSN. I still remember Dr. Mary Boylston. I was so nervous – I had never taken a blue book test, and I ended up turning it in blank. But Dr. Boylston believed  in me and said, “We can figure this out.” I did an alternative assignment, and I lived to tell the tale and graduated from Eastern with a BSN.

I’ve been very blessed to have wonderful mentors along the way. We moved a lot, with Rick’s job. I did my first master’s in Knoxville, Tennessee, and one of the faculty there at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Nursing, Dr. Martha Alligood, was a tremendous advocate for me.

What do you think Dr. Alligood saw in you?

I love to learn, and I think that leaks out all over me. I am always reading.  If somebody says something to me about a particular disease process or a new medication, I have to look it up. I learn a lot from working together with people.

Since my first master’s, I’ve gone to grad school for my doctorate, and then I pursued two post-master degrees as an adult nurse practitioner and as a family nurse practitioner. I enjoy learning, but I like to use that information, too. I still try to work with patients at least two days a month. It’s more than simply practicing to keep up my NP license, I don’t want to lose the ability to interact with patients and work with them towards better health outcomes.

Practicing helps me be a better teacher. Students enjoy the stories that you can tell from practice and the stories help students remember key concepts. I said to one patient, “You need to take one pill twice a day.” She looked at me and said, in all earnestness, “Mary, how do I take the same pill twice?” She simply did not understand. That question helped me realize I had to think about saying things to people in a way that’s clear for them. That ties into my research in health literacy.

I try to pass that on to students – that clinicians and patients and their families need to come to some shared meaning about what the clinician is asking them to do.  For example, if you bring your child in because they have an ear infection, some folks will put an antibiotic that’s meant to be swallowed in their ear because, well, it’s an earache. I like to help students to understand things like teach-back. If you were my patient, I’d say, “How would you explain this to your neighbor or your partner? We’ve talked about some important things, and I want to make sure I’ve done a good job of explaining it to you.”

Here we are in the second quarter of 2023. What are you focused on now?

Well, of course, the vision that Immaculata has had with launching the new College of Nursing and Health Professions – I think it’s remarkable. I believe that the health professions here at Immaculata are a very interesting combination where we can make a huge difference in the community, and that’s what I’m hoping we can work toward – more service in the community. We have exercise science, nutrition, allied health,  healthcare management, and nursing.

Part of the motto of Immaculata says, “Immaculatans have flexibility and a sense of personal worth, and it makes us prudent risk-takers.” That’s what I hope for us as a new college, faculty, and students – that we can be prudent risk-takers and stay true to the vision of the university. It goes on to say, “…the world belongs to those who dare and to those who care.”

Those are such powerful words. When I think about what I see as the new dean of the college, what would I like to put forward? It’s that very thing.

What current initiative are you most focused on?

We just passed, at the university governance level, an LPN to BSN initiative, which means that someone with an LPN license can have an accelerated track to earn a BSN and move into the professional nurse workforce. With regard to graduate nursing, we are pursuing approval of a family nurse practitioner program. It’s gone through the university governance system and now it’s at the Pennsylvania State Board level. We’re hoping to have that approved at some point this summer

The Master of Athletic Training recently received national accreditation and we are excited about the doors open to students with that degree.

We are also considering a new Allied health initiative regarding Medical Sonography in which students are able to complete the degree and certification requirements here at Immaculata, rather than completing their fourth-year off-site.

With our allied health, exercise science, nutrition, and nursing programs, we have a unique combination of health professional degrees.  This combination of disciplines lends itself to a robust program of interprofessional education, which we are looking forward to highlighting as a point of difference here at Immaculata.

What do you do with all your free time, Mary?

I try to garden, and I love to knit. I was just on a knitting retreat. I’m a very simple knitter – I use it to meditate. I like to make socks. My husband has more homemade socks than he knows what to do with.

My husband and I like to kayak. My husband likes both ocean and flatwater kayaking.  I like to kayak but stay on flatwater,  so I can enjoy the wildlife along the shorelines.

Do you read much?

I love to read. My favorite author is Joe Tye. He has written many books, but my favorite is “The Florence Prescription.” It’s a fairytale about what Florence Nightingale would do in a hospital today.

He has a saying I like – that you need to be more than just accountable for something, you need to own it. He says, “Nobody changes the oil in a rental car.” When you rent a car, you’re accountable for it, but you don’t take care of it in the same way. My hope for the new College is that we as faculty, staff, and students are excited and want to own the initiatives we identify together and move them forward in service to others.

What’s something big that you’ve changed your mind about over the last five to 10 years, Mary?

I’ve become more aware of the social determinants of health – how where somebody lives impacts everything. It impacts how long you live, the access that you have to healthcare, education, and food. And just like wealth can be inherited, I’ve realized that poverty is inherited from generation to generation to generation.

I had lunch with a student, probably about 12 years ago, and he said, “Dr. Powell, all my friends are either dead or in jail.” I said, “What makes you different?” He said things like having lunch with a professor, or one time he had no money to buy books, and I said we would take care of it. He said, “I can’t pay you back,” and I said, “I want you to pay it forward.” And you know what? He has.

What keeps you hopeful and optimistic, Mary?

I’m thankful to live a new day. I believe in God and I want to find snippets of joy, even on hard days, and to encourage other people find snippets of joy. I do look at the world with the glass half full and I want to believe the best about people. That’s my worldview.

I like the challenge of finding common ground with folks. When I’m working with a patient, student, or colleague, my prayer is to find a connection so that we can work together toward common goals.  

Finally, Mary, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’m fairly serious. I didn’t use to laugh much. My dear husband, Rick, has helped me appreciate laughter and fun. In the midst of seriousness, he will say, “Mary, love God and love people; have fun.” That is how I endeavor to live life.

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