Linfield University honors first master’s graduates in nearly three decades

As 70 nursing graduates and 46 faculty and staff members processed in cap and gown away from the Commencement stage Friday to the familiar strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” Linfield University Dean of Nursing Kim Dupree Jones took a moment to savor what she had just witnessed.

On Linfield’s northeast Portland campus, which opened to students only in February of this year, the university held its first significant, in-person event in 18 months, held the first event of any kind on the new campus and placed academic hoods on master’s degree graduates for the first time since the early 1990s. Approximately 300 family members and friends attended the event, cheering loudly through masks while adhering to pandemic protocols.

“This was a really a big deal,” Jones said with a smile. “This was good.”

The summer pinning and hooding ceremony for Linfield’s School of Nursing included graduates who completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, those finishing the online RN-to-BSN program and those who completed the university’s first Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) cohort. Prior to Friday, the last time Linfield had master’s degree graduates was in the early 1990s as part of a since-discontinued Master of Education program.

Professor of Nursing and MSN Program Coordinator Gary Laustsen said this initial cohort of students not only took a leap into the unknown of a new program, focused on leadership in healthcare ecosystems, but did so in the middle of extremely trying circumstances.

“Remember, these students are working nurses,” Laustsen said. “They were starting a master’s program while dealing with sudden changes in their jobs and rapidly shifting expectations, a result of the pandemic. On top of it, some of them had very difficult family circumstances during the wildfires last fall.”

One thing that will always be true of students in this class, he concluded, is that “they proved themselves to be very adaptable. They persevered, they found a way to succeed.”

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Richard Thompson, who has worked as a nurse for 22 years and is currently on the Virtual Intensive Care Unit at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health in Tacoma, Wash., was one of those graduates. He monitors ICU patients at nine hospitals remotely, monitoring their vital signs, watching their progress and collaborating with on-ground healthcare professionals to improve quality of care.

Thompson said he felt like he had been placed in leadership roles throughout his career, but had never received proper training in how to do it well. Linfield’s program, he said, wildly exceeded his expectations in that area and has already had an impact on how he does his job in the Virtual Intensive Care Unit – which has implemented a new data-sharing and trend-spotting model that he researched as part of his studies at Linfield.

“The flexibility of the master’s program, which allowed me to develop deep bonds with my classmates and professors while adapting to my constantly changing job, was fantastic,” said Thompson, who was awarded the Outstanding MSN Graduate Student Award at the ceremony Friday. Then, looking back over his shoulder at all the students who were celebrating with family after receiving their bachelor’s degrees, he said, “and seeing all of them today, all the new nurses, the future of the profession, gives me so much hope.”

Danielle Butcher-Tucker, one of those freshly minted BSN recipients, was similarly optimistic about the future. Butcher-Tucker, who already had a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, has held a number of jobs, from teaching college-level English in the Dominican Republic to teaching high school in the Reynolds School District. She’s now the mother of young twin sons, and looking forward to taking the NCLEX nursing examination this fall and moving into her new chosen profession.

“Nursing is the heart of medical care,” said Butcher-Tucker, who was awarded the Professional Excellence in Nursing Award during the ceremony. “The nurses of the world have been at the forefront of this pandemic, saving lives. Now it’s our turn to come in and help, to bring a fresh outlook and new energy. It’s our time to have the courage those who came before us have shown.”

Nursing professor Sandra Davis, chosen by the students as the faculty member to speak at the event, acknowledged the difficult days ahead they will face. She reminded them to face it with love and compassion, and to never stop learning. First, though, she encouraged them to slow down and enjoy this day, and all that it meant – to them and Linfield University.

“Cherish today,” the Air Force veteran and longtime nursing educator told the students, “and know this one of those best-day-of-your-life moments. Soak it in.”

Linfield University has campuses in McMinnville and Portland, and a College of Arts and Sciences and a School of Business in addition to the School of Nursing. Its graduates routinely have the highest average salaries among regional colleges and universities in surveys, and it is home to Oregon’s only chapter of Alpha Alpha Alpha, a national honor society for first-generation college students.