Alumni Mentor Program finds meaning during COVID

Wahl and Martinez on zoom call.

COVID-19 health crisis underscores the importance of mentor, mentee relationships arranged through the UIC Nursing Alumni Mentor Program

Janice Phillips (left); Karelle Webb

The COVID-19 pandemic hit just five months after Karelle Webb, BSN ’16, MPH, RN, took a career leap from bedside nursing to compliance and clinical education nurse at Erie Family Health Centers – placing her at the very center of the a federally qualified health center’s infection control effort.

Throughout the “crash course in nursing and public health leadership,” Webb found a pillar of support in her mentor through the UIC Nursing Alumni Mentor Program, Janice Phillips, PhD ’93, RN, CENP, FAAN, director of nursing research and health equity at Rush University Medical Center and associate professor at Rush University College of Nursing.

“She is my voice of reason as I try to figure out these things professionally and as I continue to grow,” Webb says.

UIC Nursing’s Alumni Mentor Program – now entering its third year – took on an intensified role as mentors and mentees, all nurses, navigated the biggest global health crisis in living memory.

Caitlyn Wahl, BSN ’20, RN, signed up for the program when she graduated last May and took a job as a nurse on the medical-surgical unit at University of Illinois Hospital.

“I was entering in the middle of a pandemic, and then, just being a new nurse is very nerve-wracking as well,” she says. “I didn’t have anyone close to me that was an experienced nurse. I felt very alone.”

She was paired with Erica Martinez, DNP ’13, MS ’09, RN, dean of nursing at Arizona College of Nursing in Ontario, California, and a staff nurse at Los Alamitos Medical Center. Martinez worked with Wahl to help her build confidence and guide her through a research project on wound care for the hospital’s new graduate residency program.

“In the past eight months that I’ve been talking to Erica and also working at UI Health, I’ve seen myself progressively grow, and to stop second-guessing decisions when it came to nursing care,” Wahl says.

Martinez says she relishes the opportunity to “give back” to UIC, and that her relationship with Wahl gives her a valuable perspective as an educator.

“It gives me more understanding of what that new grad faces, especially right now when we’re in COVID,” she says.

For Webb, her relationship with Phillips resulted in the fulfillment of a career-long goal: publishing an academic paper. Phillips encouraged Webb to write about her experiences navigating COVID-19 as a new public health nursing leader and gave her feedback throughout the publishing process. Webb’s first paper, “Personal reflections on navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic: From vision to reality,” was published in the journal Public Health Nursing in February.

“I’ve wanted to publish ever since I was 16 years old,” Webb says. “That was a major professional goal that I wanted for quite a while that was a direct result of my mentorship relationship with [Dr. Phillips]. I’m deeply grateful.”

Phillips says she’s had people help her throughout her career and she wanted to “pay it back,” particularly for a fellow woman of color.

“I’ve been so blessed over my career to have mentors to assist and guide me but also to inspire me,” Phillips says. “I find when you have someone who’s willing to help you, it gives you that extra push, if you will. I had a wonderful education at the University of Illinois Chicago, and I really felt this was one small way to give back a little something.”

Webb adds that the mentorship experience exceeded her expectations.

“I was looking for mentorship,” she says. “I was looking for professional connection. But through my relationship with Dr. Phillips, I’ve gotten so much more than I even bargained for.”