A Healthy Investment

Juan Carlos Torres, SON ’17
November 21, 2016

The first recipients of an endowed nursing scholarship share their stories and future plans.

May 20, 2015 was a red letter day in the life of Juan Carlos Torres, SON ’17. “I was pushing my daughter, Laila, in her bassinet to the nursery (on the day she was born),” says Juan Carlos. “As I pulled out my phone to take a picture of her, I got an email from GW saying that I had been accepted into the program.” Soon after, Juan Carlos’ wife, Marisa Wiswell, received her acceptance and they became the first married couple to attend GW’s nursing school together.

“When we started in nursing school, our baby was 3 months old,” says Juan Carlos. “I would study one hour and then my wife would pass the baby to me so she could study; we did this every night throughout the first semester of nursing school.”

With the couple studying full time and caring for a young child, even having a part-time job was impossible because the cost of child care exceeded the potential income. “While we saved some money to come to nursing school, it’s been a struggle,” says Juan Carlos. “We are so thankful that GW and this scholarship gave us the opportunity to make our dreams come true.”

That scholarship—the Johnson-Pawlson Scholarship for Enhanced Quality and Safety—was endowed by Jean Johnson, PhD ’93, and L. Gregory Pawlson, MD, who have shared a commitment to health and healing throughout their careers. The $190,000 fund created by this husband and wife team provides one need-based scholarship each year for an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing student (ABSN) in the School of Nursing who demonstrates an interest in patient safety and quality improvement and includes those areas in his or her coursework while in the program.

“Support of students through scholarship funds has such an immediate impact,” says Jean, founding dean and professor at GW’s School of Nursing. “We wanted to give deserving students a chance to have a career that we think is incredibly rewarding.”

Morgan Rollo, SON ’17, another of the scholarship recipients, originally planned to be a physician. “But within three days of starting the BSN program, I knew that nursing is exactly the field I should be in and GW is exactly the place I should be,” she says. “I quickly learned that nursing is a balance of science and compassion. Nursing encompasses all of the things in health care in which I’m interested: being at the bedside, working as an educator, and providing holistic care.”

She says that receiving the scholarship was a huge relief. “As somebody with considerable student loans who is paying for this program by myself, this financial support will enable me to more comfortably take out additional debt to further my education in the future,” she says. “I know that my education is worth the cost, but having the financial burden lessened is such a gift. I am so amazed at Dr. Johnson and Dr. Pawlson’s ambition, drive, and passion and their commitment to making a difference in the nursing field, not just in quality and safety, but in nursing education.”

Like Morgan, Juan Carlos was intent on becoming a doctor while growing up in Puerto Rico. He attended medical school in Mexico until a drug cartel-related shooting in the hospital where he worked made him decide to move to the U.S. “Since I couldn’t transfer my credits to a U.S. med school, I needed to either start from scratch or see what other options I had.”

After learning about BSN/nurse practitioner programs, Juan Carlos knew that he had found his path. “Nursing is a career that is always evolving since new evidence-based research is constantly developing,” he says. “Every year you are learning new techniques to be a better nurse. And nurses have the capacity to impact so many lives on a daily basis.”

Morgan was able to have an impact overseas when she traveled to Ecuador in March 2016, along with three classmates and a professor, through GW’s Global Initiative Program. ”We focused on community-based health at local health clinics and day care centers in Quito, doing pediatric assessments on children ranging from 3 to 10 years old,” she says. “For many of the kids, it was their only chance to be seen by a medical professional.”

Morgan says she was grateful to have the ability to become a better nurse. “The people there were leaning on us and trusting our assessments, which forced us to trust our own assessments, and our own skills,” she says. “It was also a great opportunity to see how culture and society play a role in health.” She says that GW’s simulation lab has been a boon to her training. “It’s so great to have a place to practice skills in a safe setting before working on patients,” she says.

“Experiences like (Ecuador) open my eyes to the needs of others,” says Morgan. “I think it’s important to be a global citizen and knowledgeable about other cultures, especially in areas like D.C., which is very diverse and where I plan to work. I bring that perspective and those skills with me wherever I work.”

Jean agrees. “Like medicine, nursing is now a global field,” she says. “Given that I was a young international traveler between getting my degree in economics and going to nursing school, I think that Morgan’s experience is great. I would not be surprised if she decides to do something in the international arena.”

In fact, Morgan hopes to work with the American Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders in the future, and in the nearer term plans to work in an ICU trauma center. She also wants to further her education by earning a graduate degree and becoming a nurse practitioner. “With nursing, there is an endless amount of possibility: higher education, research, and traveling,” she says. “As a field, it’s unlimited.”

Juan Carlos also plans to attend graduate school, with the intention of earning a doctorate of nursing practice and ultimately teaching at the School of Nursing. “Dr. Pawlson told me that he had a scholarship for med school and that because he knows the burden of student loans, he is trying to help other students.” He adds that Jean’s encouragement to pursue a DNP was a great support.

“(Juan Carlos) has a really clear idea of his future career path and it’s humbling to know that we can be a small part of his doing that,” Jean says. Greg, an adjunct faculty member at the School of Nursing who has held high-profile positions in academic medicine, public policy/governmental organizations, and the private sector, says, “We have devoted our careers to teaching, so being able to help give Juan Carlos the opportunity to think and dream about teaching is very rewarding.”

The Birth of a Nurse

Kayla Magee, SON ’18, who began the ABSN program this past August, was inspired to become a nurse by the care she received during her pregnancy. “As a junior in college at GW, I had a baby and that flipped my world,” she says. “I worked with nurse midwives who were responsible for my care and made a very profound impact on me.”

Kayla’s son, Wilson, was admitted into the NICU after his birth, leaving her feeling overwhelmed. “Spending a couple of weeks in the NICU as a very young, new mother was challenging,” she says. “I had a few nurses taking care of him who sat with me, taught me how to take care of him, and encouraged me in a way that was life changing.” She hopes to have that same impact on the lives of others through her nursing career.

The Johnson-Pawlson Scholarship makes it possible for her to pursue her calling. “Right before I received the letter saying I had received the scholarship, I had a conversation with my husband during which I cried and said that my going back to school would be too difficult for us,” says Kayla. “The letter came at a time when I really needed that financial security and the reassurance that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Kayla and her husband, Greg, are the parents of Wilson, now 4, and daughter Anora, 18 months. “In their generosity, Drs. Johnson and Pawlson have made an investment not only in my future but in the future of my whole family, allowing my children and my immediate family to flourish in our lives,” says Kayla. “Their philanthropy has been not only a huge financial gift, but a real confidence booster for me. They have invested in me and I can invest that same energy and confidence in myself and I can, in turn, help others.” —Michele Lynn

This article was originally published in the fall 2016 issue of Impact magazine