Dean Eileen Collins reflects on career, journey from VA to UIC Nursing’s top spot

Eileen Collins

Collins brings more than 30 years of nursing, research experience to Office of the Dean

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Even as she shot to the top as a researcher at Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital, Eileen Collins, PhD, RN, FAAN, ATSF, was keen to showcase her identity as a nurse.

 

In her 32-year career at the VA, Collins secured $41 million in grant funding for her work on rehabilitation, and she rose to acting associate chief of staff for research at the Hines VA and Lovell Federal Health Care Center. She was inducted into the International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame in 2016.

“What I found was that as I was becoming more and more entrenched in research; I was losing my identity as a nurse,” Collins says. “I just love what nurses do, and it was important to me to keep that part of me intact.”

Collins, who was already a part-time professor at UIC Collee of Nursing, retired from the VA in 2017 to take a full-time faculty position at the college. She became associate dean for research the next year.

After a rigorous selection process that included an interdisciplinary search committee, as well as presentations and input from college and campus constituencies, Collins was selected to succeed Terri Weaver, who retired this year after 11 years as dean. Weaver is now professor and dean emerita at UIC Nursing.

“I truly love this college,” Collins says. “In my nearly 20 years on the faculty, I have observed that the commitments we make to our students, to our community and to each other make this college unique among nursing schools nationwide.”

Charting a course

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Where did you grow up? What made you want to become a nurse?

I am a Chicago native. I grew up on the Northwest side of Chicago and never really left. I volunteered at Resurrection Hospital in high school. I decided I liked the work the nurses did. I worked on the oncology floor at then-Northwest Hospital (Addison and N. Central) through college at Loyola University, where I was getting my BSN, and stayed for two years after college as an RN.

How did you end up working at the VA?

I was taking care of patients in the surgical ICU at Loyola Hospital when they decided to move/expand the heart transplant program to the Hines VA. They needed someone to be the coordinator of the program. I was working on my master’s at the time, and that’s how I ended up for 30+ years at Hines.

You were a pioneer in nursing research at the VA. Tell us about that.

I finished my PhD in 1994 at an opportune time. The leaders at the VA recognized that nurses were their largest workforce, but they never had a seat at the table in terms of research. The Veterans Health Administration had just started a two-year postdoctoral fellowship program for PhD-prepared nurses. I applied and was accepted into the inaugural class.

How did you end up getting the attention of the heavyweights in Washington, D.C?

When they would be looking for a doctorally prepared nurse to serve on a committee at the VA’s central office in Washington, D.C., someone would say: “Well, there’s Eileen in Chicago.” I had the advantage of being asked to serve on a lot of important research boards and scientific review committees because I was one of only a few PhD-prepared nurses at the VA. These were opportunities that somebody at my level would not typically have been afforded, so I made the most of them.

Eventually, I became the first nurse to ever receive an award through the VA’s Career Development Program [which provides mentoring for junior researchers so they can learn from experienced VA researchers]. It doesn’t sound like a lot now, but then it was major. People looked at this as: “You’re opening doors for nurses within the VA system.” And that’s what actually happened.

In what way?

I was a nurse and paid on the nursing scale. But the people on my level who were research scientists were paid on a different scale, and they earned more money than I did. I worked with some of the nurses in central administration about correcting that. Now there’s a pay scale for nurse scientists that equals the pay scale for scientists elsewhere.

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Given your success at the VA, what made you want to join UIC Nursing faculty and administration full time?

People wanted me to stay, but I liked working with the students. I liked what nurses did. That was always my theme from the beginning of my career — that we, as nurses, could help patients manage the symptoms they were struggling with. [The line of research I took was symptom management through exercise. We were trying to help patients with chronic illness get their bodies in better condition, so they wouldn’t be so short of breath when they walked to the store.]

I also had very good nursing role models in academia that cemented my feelings. At the time, the VA was very male-dominated. Even though they invited me into the circle, it was still very important to me to have female colleagues and nurse scientist colleagues.

What appealed to you about the job of dean?

It wasn’t something that I started out wanting to do [laughs]. When I was at the VA, I had to be talked into taking the position of acting associate chief of staff for research. That was a high-level administrative position, running a large department. But what I found out was that I really enjoyed it, and I was good at it too. I liked that I had the authority to make decisions and to change things that I thought needed to be changed; not alone, but within teams. I like dealing with people. I like solving problems.

When I came to UIC full time, I sought out leadership opportunities: the UIC Faculty-Administrator Leadership Program and the UI System President’s Executive Leadership Program. I was really struck by the fact that, when UIC leadership talks about wanting to serve the underserved, they really mean it. The deans were making a difference in student lives and I wanted to be part of that.

What are your priorities for the college?

To continue to grow our tripartite mission: research, education and practice. We have expertise at the college in all of those areas. Our BSN, MS and DNP programs are the highest ranked among comparable programs at all public Illinois universities. I would like to see us continue to be on top of that heap in terms of cutting-edge education for our students. We currently have excellent outcomes. We’re providing the workforce for Chicago and the state of Illinois.

What sorts of challenges and opportunities does the COVID-19 pandemic bring?

In terms of the College of Nursing, we really rose to the occasion. From the beginning, our faculty volunteered with employee health service, testing the Chicago community and vaccine rollout at UI Health. At one point in time, [UI Health] was giving the most vaccinations in the city of Chicago. That would not have happened without the faculty and students of this college.

But also, it really did lay bare those social determinants of health. You couldn’t deny the numbers and what was happening to people of color and people without economic means. These were the people who kept society moving, but they were also the people most stricken by COVID.

The vision of the National Academy of Medicine’s Future of Nursing Study is to promote health equity by strengthening the nursing profession. That should be part of our mantra moving forward.

What are your hobbies?

I’m a huge Cubs fan. You’ll find me sitting in Wrigley Field for several games each year (before the pandemic, it was more). My husband and I like to go boating on the Chain o’ Lakes, on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin. I also like to walk. If I have a decision to make or I’m mulling something, you’ll often find me getting out of the office and going for a walk.