Alumni Awards 2023

Alumni Award for Clinical Achievement in Nursing: Ali Cocco, MSN'15, MDiv'11, BS'08,

Ali Cocco

As a certified nurse midwife at the Vanderbilt University Medica Center, Ali gravitates toward the more medically-complex, high-risk OB patients. Her nominator says she, “flawlessly coordinates complex care for these women while making each of them feel special and heard.” Her interest in updating her practice to be the most evidenced-based has led her to be a resource for CNM students and residents.

Ali is a leader. As a member of the VUMC Advanced Practice Leadership Board, the OB/GYN Preconception Care team, and the OB/GYN Research Committee, she advocates for colleagues throughout her employer. Her nominator says she has a reputation for having a robust sense of ownership for her role in her department. As assistant division director, she oversees 30 advanced practice providers to whom she provides guidance and much-needed emotional support. She developed a mentorship program for new hires, organized CME opportunities, coordinates clinical sites, and leads a “boot camp” that includes hands-on activities and simulation.

In addition, Ali is a peer-reviewer and associate editor of the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health, and has served on the Diversification and Inclusion Task Force of the American College of Nurse-Midwives. She co-presented “Strength in Diversity” at VUMC Advanced Practice Grand Rounds last year.


Thomas L. Christenbery Alumni Award for Diversity & Inclusion: Shelza Rivas, DNP'17, MSN'15, BA'12

Shelza RivasOriginally from Lima, Peru, Shelza is fluent in both Spanish and English languages. During her time as a student at VUSN, she realized the importance of finding alliance and community with other Hispanic/Latinx nursing students and faculty. To fill this gap, she started the Hispanic/Latinx Student Nurses Affinity Group as a safe space for the unique academic experience that Hispanic/Latinx students encounter.

As a faculty member in the pre-specialty community health course, Dr. Rivas led the first nursing student group on a collaborative quality improvement project with a clinic in rural Guatemala. The initial project focused on increasing access to health care for remote communities through use of a mobile clinic while still maintaining a brick-and-mortar clinic. Subsequent projects were built upon this mobile clinic initiative and have included the development of health-related workshops for women and children. The initial partnership forged by Shelza has grown and evolved into a stable, sustainable collaboration between the clinic and VUSN.

Shelza has collaborated with the Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center to provide several presentations about GYN-related cancers to Spanish-speaking communities within Nashville, and she has collaborated with colleagues to raise community awareness about dementia and caregiver burnout. Shelza has recorded presentations in her native language for distribution to Spanish-speaking communities. Topics included advanced care planning, caregiver self-care and dementia health care team navigation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Rivas was a vaccinator in the VUSN-led mobile clinic. In addition to providing vaccines, she served as a liaison for Spanish-speaking communities who had fears, doubts and questions about the vaccine. She has been an active participant and advocate for the National Association of Hispanic Nurses.

Friend of Nursing Award: Cassie Brady, HO'12, MD

Cassie BradyDr. Brady is a pediatric endocrinologist and an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the Monroe Carrol Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. She has testified before the Tennessee State Senate to advocate for gender-affirming care, and is active in numerous professional organizations. Most relevant to this nomination, Dr. Brady has provided guest lectures for over six years at VUSN, primarily through the course, “LGBTQIA+ Health in Interprofessional Practice”, a two-hour elective course open to all graduate students at the university.

Following viewing a pre-taped lecture, students attend a synchronous online interactive seminar led by Dr. Brady to explore the lecture content, which includes pediatric endocrinology, pubertal disorders and differences of sex development. Her identification of the potential impact of spiritual care for this population led to the topic of “spirituality” receiving a dedicated lecture and seminar in this course from a chaplain at VUMC.

VUSN students have observed Dr. Brady to be one of the top speakers in the course, with comments such as, “Dr. Brady is an excellent resource and her dedication to patients and students was evident,” “I love what Dr. Brady said about supporting the family and ensuring to congratulate them on their baby, and how important that is in those initial moments,” and “I am so happy… that Dr. Brady's team at Vanderbilt includes spiritual care and social work to the care team.” Her nominator added that Cassie is especially attuned to and promotes the role of nurses and APRNs in caring for pediatric patients and families, and actively participates in their education.

Friend of Nursing Award: Jenna Smith, LCSW

Jenna SmithJenna’s nominator describes her as a trailblazer in the field of social work, particularly in the context of nursing, asserting that “her tireless efforts to bridge the gap between health care and social services have had a profound impact on patient outcomes and the overall well-being of individuals and families.”

As a social worker, Jenna works collaboratively with nurses and other health care professionals, resulting in comprehensive care plans that holistically meet the needs of patients. She recently partnered with VUSN faculty member Christian Ketel, to create the first of many “resiliency hubs” with Urban Housing Solutions, providing an important human connection to a most socially-isolated community.

Jenna actively seeks opportunities to expand her knowledge and skills, staying abreast of the latest research and best practices in social work and nursing. Her commitment to professional growth and development has not only benefitted her own practice but has also influenced and inspired countless nursing professionals and students she has worked alongside.

At VUSN’s nurse-led West End Clinic, Jenna has led the social service and behavioral health integration program for over eight years, taking numerous nursing and allied health students under her wing. Her nominator says Jenna’s “exceptional contributions to the field of nursing, her advocacy for vulnerable populations, her commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration, and her unwavering dedication to patient-centered care make her an exceptional candidate for the VUSN Friend of Nursing Award.”

Colleen Conway-Welch Alumni Award for National Leadership: Sharon Holley, DNP’10

Sharon HolleyDr. Holley has held high-level administrative nurse-midwifery roles across the United States. In her 25-year career, she has been the Director of the Vanderbilt Faculty Midwifery Practice and was the Chief for the Division of Nurse-Midwifery at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, where she was the first nurse to hold an advanced practice faculty appointment. Currently she developed and leads the University of Alabama at Birmingham Nurse Midwifery program. In this role, she has created one of the top nurse-midwifery programs in the nation.

Sharon’s bounty of publications influence nursing practice and education and are focused on improving patient safety and implementing evidence-based practice. Based on this work, she became the nurse-midwife representative for the Maternal Vital Sign Triggers program hosted by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynocologists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Partnership for Maternal Safety, and the American Nurses Association. Dr. Holley also served on the American College of Nurse-Midwives Healthy Birth Initiative.

All of these national endeavors have had an immense impact on national morbidity and mortality associated with pregnancy, while on a local level, Sharon has had an impact exploring the rich history of midwifery as it connects to social and racial inequities in the South.

Catherine Hanley Class of 1912 Rising Star Alumni Award: Jason Williams, DNP'23, PMC'23, MSN'16

Jason WilliamsDr. Williams is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where he has implemented a multifocal approach to mitigate health, social and educational disparities and inequities in African American communities, especially with males of all ages.

Jason’s commitment to community goes beyond his job’s roles and responsibilities. He is an invited speaker and expert for health events throughout Arkansas and Tennessee. These events have included the “Mental Health and Wellness: Coping and Living with COVID -19 and More”, the annual Black Male Summit sponsored by Meharry Medical College and the Urban League of Middle Tennessee, the BRIDGE to Success program at Meharry Medical College, and the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance.

Through many organizations, Dr. Williams volunteers his time to actively participate with programs designed to motivate African American children to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. He understands the importance of establishing relationships with children to have a greater impact through mentoring many young African American men.

While at Vanderbilt, Jason was elected as the president of the Doctoral of Nursing Practice Student Affinity Group. He serves as the Chapter President of the Little Rock Chapter of the National Black Nurses Association, and has served as the Arkansas State Director of Social Action of the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.

Linda Norman Alumni Award for Innovation in Health Care: Audra Rankin, DNP, MSN’08

Audra RankinDr. Rankin has practiced nursing in a variety of compacities, including in her current positions as clinical assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Associate Faculty Director at the UNC Center for the Business of Health. She is National Health Policy Chair of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners and Health Policy Department Editor for the Journal of Pediatric Health Care.

Audra recently co-founded the podcast, “RISE with Emily and Audra,” where she, her co-host and guest speakers from a variety of backgrounds and fields of expertise, discuss an assortment of concepts that can be implemented into various health care roles. Its tagline is “To inspire others to think with us, learn with us, and along the way RISE UP above their day to day.”

Said Dr. Rankin’s nominator: “I highly recommend this podcast to any individual who wants to learn from a variety of different professionals [and] to become inspired to implement these life lessons into their day-to-day work. The relationships… give us listeners ways or tips to help change our section of health care for the better. The connection at the end of the podcast and how [the hosts] personally relate the interview to health care, creates a stir in the listener to ponder the same connections. It has been a game changer for me.”

Alma Gault Alumni Award for Public Service: Diane Welch Vines, PhD, BSN’67

Diane Welch VinesDr. Vines is the founder and director of the California State University San Bernardino Nursing Street Medicine Program, and organization that provides health care services to homeless, unsheltered and vulnerable people in California’s Coachella Valley, at no charge. Faculty and students from California State University, San Bernardino Palm Desert Campus school of nursing assist in the clinic, providing triage, health assessments, medication management, education, and other assistance to personnel as needed. This includes providing hundreds of vaccinations to migrant farm workers and their families.

The Program focuses on helping nursing students improve communication skills and develop empathy. Students learn primary behavioral health assessment tools for depression, anxiety, PTSD, mental status exam and cognitive disorders. Their assessments are, among other things, part of the behavioral health verification plan for their clients’ permanent housing applications.

Providing mental health services to the unhoused population in the Valley is a growing community concern, according to Diane’s nominator. In response, Dr. Vines is the co-founder and co-facilitator of a group of over 30 homeless outreach organizations, who collaborate to organize their efforts and avoid duplication of efforts. She, too, provides behavioral health assessments for the Coachella Valley Association of Governments and the Jewish Family Services of San Diego, which leads to permanent supported housing for her clients. This year, the City of Palm Desert declared August 24 as “Dr. Diane Vines Day” to honor her leadership and service to the community.

Lulu Wolf Hassenplug Alumni Award for Distinguished Career in Nursing: Betsy Babb Kennedy, PhD, MSN'93, BSN'89

Abigail MorganDr. Kennedy’s contributions to the profession of nursing include authorship of more than 30 journal articles and book chapters, service on the editorial board of the Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing, and service on the board of directors for the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses. She has authored 17 peer-reviewed articles on best practices in nursing education, from cognitive theory to promotion of equitable and inclusive learning environments.

Nationally recognized for her expertise in nursing education, Dr. Kennedy has developed and overseen curriculum strategies, evaluation practices and online teaching methodologies that have been implemented at VUSN and our peer institutions. In 2017, Betsy was selected to be a Gold Humanism and Harvard Macy Scholar at the Institute for Health Professions Educators, a competitive faculty development training program that prepares its scholars to create and implement innovative methods to teach and assess health professional learners.

As Associate Dean for Academics and Curriculum Affairs at VUSN, Dr. Kennedy designs and implements innovative strategies for faculty members who are new to a role in academia, including a 12-month-long program that orients them to the school, and a professional writing workshop series. Established faculty at VUSN have also benefitted from her commitment to professional development through the creation of a forum that provides all faculty members with opportunities to peer review and share scholarship.

Betsy has received numerous student-selected teaching awards from all of the degree programs at VUSN, including the prestigious Ingeborg Mauschk Award which she received three times. Through her teaching, mentoring and leadership, Dr. Kennedy has trained nurses across the U.S. who have, in turn, held national leadership positions and have excelled in patient care.

Erin Miller, MSN’19, recipient of the 2022 VUSN Catherine Hanley Class of 1912 Rising Star Alumni Award was recognized this year with the Early Career Professional Achievement Award from Vanderbilt University Alumni Association.