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Charge to graduating students: Make your story a ‘good one’

spring 2023 commencement speaker

At the UIC College of Nursing spring 2023 commencement on May 4, keynote speaker Janice Phillips, PhD ’93, RN, CENP, FAAN, challenged graduating students to “craft your own nursing story.”

Speaking to about 300 graduating students, Phillips shared her own improbable story—a journey that took her from the foster care system with little hope of attending college (odds she calculated at “slim to none”) to earning a PhD in nursing, to federal policy and advocacy roles, and to her position now as director of Nursing Research and Equity at Rush University Medical Center.

“This is my story, one of overcoming and finding meaning and satisfaction in nursing,” Phillips said during the ceremony at Credit Union 1 Arena. “But today, what about your story? Many of you are here today because you overcame something to reach this milestone. Now is your moment, your freedom, to craft your own nursing story.”

Among the UIC Nursing 2023 spring graduating class, degrees were awarded to: 201 bachelor’s students, 88 DNP students, nine PhD students and three master’s students (most nursing master’s students graduate in December). The graduates represented students from all six of UIC Nursing’s campuses: Chicago, Peoria, Quad Cities, Rockford, Springfield and Urbana.

Student speaker Katherine Martinson, DNP ’23, RN, addressed one common obstacle that all the graduating students overcame to reach commencement: the COVID-19 pandemic. Remembering challenging conditions to attend class—such as face shields, saliva tests, mandatory health checks, and Zoom classes—she said those extra efforts “served to remind us of the value of this education and how fervently we desired to pursue it.”

“We could not define the circumstances in which we worked towards this degree, but we did refuse to be defined by them,” she said. “So, we persevered through the unknown and via our collective, yet uniquely individual journeys, we have arrived at graduation.”

The pomp and circumstance of commencement was preceded by pinning ceremonies at all three campuses with bachelor’s degree programs—Chicago, Springfield and Urbana—and the quirky UIC Nursing ritual of the senior class pool jump.

In her address to graduating students, Phillips recalled having no aspirations to be a nurse until her state-appointed social worker told her, “You have potential.” The social worker helped her secure funding for college, allowing Phillips to obtain a four-year college degree, something she said only 3 to 4% of foster youth do.

“As a homeless, seventh-grade dropout, unbeknownst to me, my experiences with food insecurity, limited access to health care, poor health literacy, poverty and a dysfunctional foster care experience, would shape my own path in a career known for its compassion and care,” she said. “These factors that we now call the social determinants of health provided the inspiration for my life’s work, my practice, my research and policy advocacy.”

Phillips said her commitment to nursing excellence is rooted in an unwavering “desire to help others,” and she told graduates she hopes they, too, have a “rich and rewarding career.”

“Despite twists and turns you might encounter along the way, I hope you find people, purpose, passion, and a big dose of perseverance to help you advance health and the profession,” she said.

She added: “At the end of the day, everyone will have a story to tell. Make sure you make yours a good one.”