Alumni Awards

Alumni Award for Clinical Achievement in Nursing: S. Abigail Morgan, MSN’05

Abigail MorganAbigail was nominated by the medical director of the outpatient department at the Yukon Kuskokwim Healthcare Corporation in Bethel, Alaska, where she is a nurse practitioner and medical staff trainer, for her behind-the-scenes work to improve outcomes for patient and improve processes for providers.

The clinic serves a predominantly Native Alaskan population who either fly by small plane to the clinic or are visited in their villages by Abigail and the staff, also in small planes. In this remote part of the country, resources are at a minimum and logistical challenges abound.

Abigail has been a leading women's health clinician in the area, addressing very high-risk OB patients, providing gynecological care, and advancing preventative care, all the while providing better outcomes and process improvement. She has researched and identified ways to improve health disparities related to STIs in the indigenous population, streamlining the types of testing available and teaching staff.

In her behind-the-scenes work, Abigail improves processes for providers and nurses which results in improved outcomes for patients. She provides EMR training, prepares new providers in women's health clinical skills, and continuously strives to improve workflows. She is always amenable to helping out her coworkers and steps in often to make sure patients have access to the care they need. 

Thomas L. Christenbery Alumni Award for Diversity & Inclusion: Taaka Cash, DNP’13, MSN’12

Taaka CashDr. Cash opened Privy Oasis, the first Black-owned mental health clinic in Southlake, Texas, in 2013 to provide equitable and accessible mental health and psychiatric care to communities of color in the Dallas area for whom such support has not been readily available. She has consciously developed and led a diverse staff with the mission of aiding an under-served and misdiagnosed community consisting mostly of people of color.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Taaka expanded her clinic to include telehealth psychiatric services, further reaching patients of color residing in communities not otherwise receiving such care. This allowed her clients to continue to have accessible, individualized and cost-effective treatment during an especially stressful time.

Taaka has used social media to provide education, training, clinical commentary and informed conversations on the importance of psychiatric care and mental health services, a conversation often lacking among communities of color.

One of her nominators said, “Dr. Cash’s effort, work, support, development and heart in her life mission to open dialogue about mental health… shines from her daily and on every level. Her achievements in building accessible, innovative and actionable mental health services to her community is admirable and necessary. Dr. Cash not only walks in this service, she exemplifies her love for this work daily and there is no other that has proven themselves in the field of mental health innovation.”

Thomas L. Christenbery Alumni Award for Diversity & Inclusion: Rebekah Lee Hayes, DNP’20, MSN’16

Rebekah Lee HayesAs one of only a few Asian American students at VUSN, Dr. Hayes co-founded and was president of the first ever student group devoted to promoting awareness of Asian American and Pacific Islander cultural practices and health disparities within the health care community.

The Asian Pacific Islander & Desi American Student Nurses organization, now a registered affinity group within VUSN and organizational member of the Asian American/Pacific Islander Nurses Association, provides networking opportunities for APIDA-identifying nursing students and serves as a means of social support for students matriculating through VUSN.

As an Instructor of Nursing at VUSN, Dr. Hayes is the faculty advisor to the organization, guiding the group’s substantial growth since its inception. The increased violence towards members of the Asian American community and the anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for APIDA-identifying students to feel safe and supported. Members of VUSN’s APIDA group have provided school-wide webinars and workshops on the magnitude and impact of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic.

In addition to her work with APIDA, Rebekah is the VUSN representative for “A3PI”, a resource hub for all Asian and AAPI-identifying members of the Vanderbilt University community. She served as a panel member for the VUSN Dore to Door event, “Supporting Nursing Students of Color: Success Strategies from Academia to Practice.” 

Colleen Conway-Welch Alumni Award for National Leadership: Karen Hande, DNP’13

Karen HandeDr. Hande is a nationally recognized for her innovative teaching and learning strategies. Her work has transformed the doctor of nursing practice program here at VUSN as well as DNP programs throughout the country. She created a DNP practice hours database and project timeline template, both of which have improved the way in which students can document – and faculty can evaluate – their readiness to practice as doctorally-prepared nurses. Karen designed and implemented the DNP Appreciative Advising Model that concentrates on DNP student needs and faculty skills and knowledge to guide students through doctoral work. The model has been published in a peer-reviewed journal and was also recognized as one of Nurse Educator’s most popular articles. She has consulted with 18 schools of nursing across the country to renovate their outdated approaches to use of this model.

Dr. Hande has received national accolades for her work, including a nursing education fellowship in the National League for Nursing. She is nationally recognized as a leader in scholarship that focuses on transition to practice, faculty teaching innovations, DNP education, DNP projects, nurse practitioner fellowship curriculum and implementation, as well as translation of evidence into practice in the specialty areas of opioids, cannabidiol, pain management and mindfulness. She has been an invited speaker at a multitude of national educational and professional conferences.

Karen designed and implemented a competency-based, post-graduate NP oncology fellowship at Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center, the first hospital-based oncology transition to practice program in Tennessee and the third in the entire country. She also designed an opioid mitigation protocol to prevent opioid misuse, abuse and diversion at VUMC, which has become nationally recognized and is being implemented by NPs throughout the U.S. 

Colleen Conway-Welch Alumni Award for National Leadership: Cara Calloway Young, PhD’10, MSN’06

Cara Calloway YoungDriven by her passion for clinical translational research, Dr. Young focuses her research on developing sustainable, culturally competent strategies that promote the optimum mental and physical health of marginalized and underserved rural, Hispanic and African-American adolescents and young adults who face high rates of unattended mental health issues that jeopardize their capacity to be well-functioning and contributing adults.

In her clinical work in Texas, Dr. Young identified the extensive needs of young Hispanic females diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome. Through cutting-edge integration of self-management science and mindfulness-based interventions, Cara innovated and tested a feasible, cost-effective intervention that could be delivered virtually and improved self-efficacy in these vulnerable young women. She implemented a culturally-tailored intervention in a school system of over 11,000 students, mostly Hispanic and economically disadvantaged. Her work is being extended with potential scalability for underserved U.S. schools and districts.

Cara’s contributions to the understanding of the complex psychological processes among stressful life events and the development of depressive and anxiety symptoms in marginalized and underserved youth, has been widely disseminated in peer reviewed journals and quickly gained her notice as an expert and leader in this area. She has received multiple invitations to present her research and awards recognizing the significance of her work. 

Friend of Nursing Award: Gilbert Gonzales, PhD, MHA

Gilbert GonzalesDr. Gonzales is an assistant professor in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Medicine, Health & Society, the Department of Health Policy, and the Program for Public Policy Studies, as well as an associate director in the Vanderbilt LGBTQ+ Policy Lab. He is an international expert on health policy, reform, disparities and LGBTQIA+ health. At VUSN, he has lectured and led student seminars annually on LGBTQIA+ health care quality, cost and policy for at least 6 years in a course that is open to all Vanderbilt graduate students, including those at the School of Nursing.

An advocate and mentor for nursing and medical students, Gilbert unwaveringly supports advanced practice nursing. His seminars are Q&A-driven and focused, and his work to actively advance equity, diversity and inclusion is consistent with VUSN's mission. He has published over 60 peer-reviewed studies in high-impact outlets, and his research has been covered by news outlets such as CNN, Reuters, the New York Post, The Guardian and U.S. News and World Report. 

Alma Gault Alumni Award for Public Service: Jade Ward Vergara, MSN’13

Jade VergaraJade has maintained a clinical practice since 2014, primarily working with underserved older adults living in long term care facilities in the Nashville area. As an instructor at VUSN, she has guided her students to understand the impact of social injustice and racism on underserved communities.

One example of the impact of Jade’s work occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she identified a two-pronged issue among older adult refugees in Middle Tennessee: low COVID vaccination rates and related social isolation when in-person programming closed out of fear of spreading the virus. Jade partnered Catholic Charities with the Vanderbilt Mobile Vaccination Clinic, and guided her nursing students to provide culturally sensitive vaccine education and outreach. The result was that the population’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccination rate improved to over 50%, which once again allowed for in-person social programming.

As part of this project, Jade’s students conducted qualitative assessments of loneliness and measured social isolation. Their data has determined the types of programming needed to decrease isolation and to meet the holistic health needs of these individuals in a culturally competent manner. Future in-person programming can be tailored to specific community needs, reduce social isolation, and promote participants’ health and wellbeing. 

Catherine Hanley Class of 1912 Rising Star Alumni Award: Erin Miller, MSN’19

Erin MillerAs one of only 2 certified pediatric Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners in Florida and of only 538 nationwide, Erin has improved the lives of hundreds of children who have faced sexual assault and has positively influenced care systems for these children and their families. In her position at the Children’s Advocacy Center of Southwest Florida, she helps children begin to heal and see their bodies as normal through careful, trauma-informed care while also collecting necessary forensic evidence.

Her expertise as a pediatric SANE, child advocate and health care leader are recognized in over 1,000 completed sexual assault exams and court testimony in over 100 cases. Erin’s interdisciplinary efforts have had immediate impact on care delivery. Using her practice as a model, providers in her agency modified their exams by altering their terminology when speaking to children to mitigate triggers and inflict secondary trauma.

Erin is a VUSN preceptor and member of the School’s SANE program advisory board, and was a panelist for two of our Dore to Door alumni panels. Her work was featured in a video viewed by hundreds of participants including members of Congress and their aides, HRSA officials, and other SANE trainee program teams. As her nominator said, Erin’s work not only demonstrates the current excellence reflective of a Vanderbilt degree, but also provides continued care and promise for unnumbered patients, families and interdisciplinary teams.

Erin’s work is best explained in her own words: “I reassure children about their bodies…I remind them they are brave, strong, smart, kind and they can do anything. I encourage them to say those words with me, in the hopes that if nothing else sticks, the truth of those words will resound inside them forever.” 

Lulu Wolf Hassenplug Alumni Award for Distinguished Career in Nursing: Amy Conklin Pettigrew, PhD, BSN’72

Amy Conklin PettigrewDr. Pettigrew has used her 50 years since graduating from Vanderbilt to contribute to the profession of nursing through multiple publications and presentations, and through her leadership in the education of future nurses.

Amy’s career took her through a variety of clinical and leadership roles, from the surgical ICU at Vanderbilt University Hospital to assistant head nurse at the University of Virginia Hospital, to teaching medical-surgical nursing at the Good Samaritan Hospital School of Nursing in Cincinnati. From there, she became a clinical nurse specialist at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, then critical care clinical specialist at Providence Hospital in Cincinnati, and then assistant professor at Xavier University. Dr. Pettigrew earned her PhD at Indiana University, and was named chair of nursing at Xavier. In that role, she led the development of new associate and masters in nursing programs and a conversion to a traditional BSN program. In her tenure, enrollment grew from 29 to over 200 students.

Amy returned to the University of Cincinnati as executive director of graduate programs, associate director of the Institute for Nursing Research, and director of the Center for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning in Nursing. She served as interim director of school’s Undergraduate Curriculum Design, Implementation & Evaluation Team.

In 2010, Miami Dade College of Nursing named Dr. Pettigrew dean. She served in that role for 6.5 years, leading a diverse program where 92% of the faculty are people of color and students hail from over 60 countries. Since retirement, Amy now sits on the National League for Nursing’s Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation, and takes medical mission trips to Zambia and Brazil.

Honorary Alumna: Bonnie Pilon, PhD

Bonnie PilonWhile leading VUSN's practice division at Vanderbilt, Dr. Pilon started many successful clinical practices that are serving patients throughout Tennessee today, and whose staff impact an immense number of vulnerable individuals.

Recognized as a beloved and dedicated colleague, teacher, mentor and friend to thousands of students, alumni, faculty and staff during her time at VUSN, Bonnie has sacrificed countless hours and resources to elevate our faculty, staff and, most importantly, students.

Dr. Pilon came out of and delayed her well-deserved retirement to fight Nashville’s COVID-19 pandemic. She has worked with both VUSN and Vanderbilt University Medical Center to trace and vaccinate the Vanderbilt student body and the Nashville community. She is a living legend in the realm of nurse-led, public health endeavors both within the local community and also on the international stage.

Her nominator said it best: “Bonnie deserves to be awarded the distinction of VUSN Alumna in light of her contribution and sacrifice to Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. She loves and is loved by our Vanderbilt University School of Nursing and Vanderbilt University. I have difficulty identifying one of our VUSN family that has had a larger impact on the Nursing School and the larger Vanderbilt community.”

Linda Norman Alumni Award for Innovation in Health Care: Laura Logsdon Buchanan, MBA, BSN’84

Laura BuchananLaura co-founded the Nursing Institute for Healthcare Design in 2008 to create and build a network of nurses interested in evidence-based design for health care organizations. Her co-founder explained that they felt isolated in their interest to improve physical health care spaces, but knew there were nurses who shared their passion. Motivated to build a community of like-minded nurses who also felt alone and were looking for support, Laura developed the organization’s website as a platform for nurses to be educated about health care design as well as a database of resources. 

The institute became a non-profit in 2010, and over the years has grown into an entity of over 150 members from around the world, ranging from young to retired clinicians, and includes architects and designers from other disciplines.

Says Laura’s nominator, “This national organization has provided the clinical voice to be at the table for the design of health care environments. It has created a resource for nurse leaders in health care design and built a reputation in the industry as a champion of nurses having a seat at the table for design discussions. Laura is a pioneer and an innovator who expands the boundaries of nursing. She sees a problem and is not afraid to tackle it.”