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Phyllis Pelt

Phyllis Pelt

Founding Director, UIC Nursing online school nurse certification program

Phyllis Pelt, MS ’95, BSN ’67, says she isn’t afraid of causing “a little trouble.”

That’s been true all her life, whether she’s pioneering a path for African American students, creating a first-of-its-kind online nursing program, or forcing a reluctant school district to make changes in the interest of student health.

In college during the civil rights movement, she was one of only a handful of African American students to graduate from her nursing class. Her mother, a nurse at Cook County Hospital, had urged her to live in the dorms, and Pelt credits this proximity to campus with the reason she was able to graduate.

She recalls encountering racism from instructors and classmates, including her first roommate who told Pelt she and the other students living in the dorm had discussed who would “get the black roommate.” Her roommate had “lost,” Pelt said.

“After she told me that, I stayed in the library until it closed,” Pelt said. “I did that from moment she told me until the end of the semester. And, of course, I made all ‘A’s, thank you very much to her.”

As a result of this and other lived experiences, Pelt became a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion and continues to be involved with the UIC Nursing Urban Health program.

A passion for prevention Heading link

As a school nurse in an Oak Park elementary school in the 1980s, Pelt was teaching children the importance of properly washing their hands, long before COVID-19 prompted a national conversation about it.

She collaborated with University of Illinois scientists to conduct an experiment with the students, culturing their hands before and after washing them, so that they could see the difference hand-washing made. Pelt helped the kids make and record a song about hand-washing and the effort spread through the district.

As a master’s degree student, she developed a project based on something she had noticed as a school nurse: grandparents raising their grandkids. Her program helped grandparents make stronger connections with schools and learn about addiction, attitudes and decisions, for which she earned national recognition.

A power to be reckoned with Heading link

Phyllis Pelt hula hooping at a meeting of the 40+ Double Dutch Club she supports

Pelt was recruited in 1998 by then-head of the UIC school nursing program, Julia Cowell, PhD, MS ’74, to develop the college’s cutting-edge online school nurse certification program, the first in the state. The average age of her students was 43, and because it was online, Pelt was able to reach nurses all over the nation who didn’t live near a campus to take in-person classes, strengthening their ability to be leaders in their school districts.

“They could be a voice; they could be advocates; they could be a part of changing policy,” she says. “That was what we were all about.”

She went on to win the first National School Nurse Educator award in 2005. Later, she led students in an environmental project to force the Bellwood (Illinois) School District to remove black mold from its classrooms, for which she won the Nurse Luminary award in 2009.

Recalling that after that she was “banned” from taking students into that school district for their clinical assignments, she said it was worth it if she protected students and teachers from the blight on the school.

“She [is] a power to be reckoned with,” wrote Martha Dewey Bergren, DNS, RN, FAAN, retired UIC Nursing clinical professor, in her nominating letter.

When Pelt left her position at UIC Nursing in 2008, it wasn’t for retirement; it was for what she calls her “preferment.” Her preferred activities now include serving on the board of her daughter’s 501c3 organization, 40+ Double Dutch Club. The club, intended to encourage women age 40 and older to stay active, largely via engaging in playground games, operates in more than 120 states, as well as Israel and Canada, and has reached more than 25,000 women. Pelt, who was a 2020 UIC Nursing Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award Winner, has used her nursing expertise to incorporate health and wellness standards and has overseen the clubs’ safety guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pelt says she credits her husband of 52 years for her emboldened attitude and “thanks God for all of her accomplishments throughout her nursing career.”