School of Nursing honors outstanding alumni and friends for accomplishment, service and impact

Group of people standing, smiling and holding awards

2022 award winners include, from left: Cara Young, Karen Hande, Erin Miller, Jade Vergara, Rebekah Lee Hayes, Laura Buchanan, Amy Pettigrew and Taaka Cash. Honorees not pictured include: Abigail Morgan, Gilbert Gonzales and Bonnie Pilon.


By Tatum Lyles Flick
VUSN Communications Specialist

The Vanderbilt University School of Nursing Alumni Association recognized 11 alumni and friends for their extraordinary work during the recent 2022 Reunion State of the School Address and Awards Ceremony.

“Excellent nurses positively affect the lives of those in their care and in their communities,” said Dean Pamela R. Jeffries, PhD, FAAN, ANEF, FSSH. “Our alumni and friends who received these awards show just how far a degree from the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, paired with the drive and dedication to make a difference, can take someone’s career.” 

Honorees were nominated by fellow alumni and colleagues and selected by the association’s board of directors. The awards recognize alumni at varying stages of their careers and in different areas of impact, from academics to public service to clinical excellence and support of the School of Nursing. 

Family, friends and colleagues looked on as awardees stepped up to receive recognition and accept each honor. The ceremony was followed by a reception and tour of the renowned VUSN nursing simulation lab. 

2022 Honorees 

  • S. Abigail Morgan, MSN’05, received the Alumni Award for Clinical Achievement in Nursing. Morgan works for the Yukon Kuskokwim Healthcare Corporation in Bethel, Alaska, where she and her colleagues care for predominantly Alaska Native patients in clinic and through village visits. Morgan’s focus is on high-quality women’s health care, despite limitations to supplies and staffing. She conducted a research study on addressing gynecological disparities, which helped mitigate sexually transmitted infections and improved testing processes. She helps support healthy pregnancies and prevention of cholestasis and other common issues found in her patient population. She excels at training staff and creating efficiencies. Her nominator said, “Abigail works tirelessly to improve outcomes for patient and improve processes for providers.”
  • Taaka Cash, DNP’13, MSN’12, received a Thomas L. Christenbery Award for Diversity and Inclusion for her work to bring mental health care to Black patients in Texas. More than a decade ago, she opened Privy Oasis, the first Black-owned mental health clinic in Southlake, Texas, to provide equitable and accessible mental health and psychiatric care to communities of color in the Dallas area. She develops and leads a diverse staff and uses 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 that she was deserving of the award because of her “work, support, development and heart in her life’s mission to open dialogue about mental health nursing and mental health … On every level, her achievement in building accessible, innovative and actionable mental health services to her community is admirable and necessary.”
  • Rebekah Lee Hayes, DNP’20, MSN’16, received a Thomas L. Christenbery Award for Diversity and Inclusion. When she was one of only a few Asian American students at VUSN, she co-founded and was president of the first student group devoted to promoting awareness of Asian American and Pacific Islander cultural practices and health disparities. The Asian Pacific Islander and Desi American Student Nurses Organization is now a registered affinity group within VUSN and an organizational member of the Asian American Pacific Islander Nurses Association, which provides networking opportunities and social support for students. Now an instructor of nursing at VUSN, Hayes is the group’s faculty adviser, guiding the group’s substantial growth since its inception. She also serves as the VUSN representative for A3PI, a research hub for Asian and AAPI identifying members of the Vanderbilt University community. She was a panel member for the VUSN Dore to Door event, Supporting Nursing Students of Color: Success Strategies from Academia to Practice. In her acceptance speech, she credited the person for whom the award is named saying, “Dr. Christenbery embodied, not only the spirit of inclusion, but the kindness and the compassion, and the gentleness of spirit that is really at the heart of the nursing profession and he helped make VUSN my home.”
  • Karen Hande, DNP’13, received  Colleen Conway-Welch Award for National Leadership in honor of her broad impact on health care. Hande is a nationally recognized nurse scholar known for her innovative teaching and learning strategies. Her work transformed the DNP practice at VUSN and across the country. Among her accomplishments was the creation of a DNP practice hours database and project timeline, which improved how students document and faculty evaluate readiness to practice. Hande designed and implemented the DNP Appreciative Advising Model that connects student needs to faculty skills. The model has been published in multiple peer-reviewed journals and was recognized as one of Nurse Educators’ most popular articles. She consulted with 18 schools of nursing across the country on the model. Hande designed and implemented a competency-based, postgraduate in oncology fellowship at the Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center, the first hospital-based oncology transition-to-practice in Tennessee and third in the country. She also designated a nationally recognized opioid mitigation protocol to prevent opioid abuse.
  • Cara (Calloway) Young, PhD’10, MSN’06, received a Colleen Conway-Welch Award for National Leadership in honor of her broad impact on health care. Driven by a passion for clinical translational research, Young develops sustainable, culturally competent strategies to promote physical and mental health for marginalized and underserved rural Hispanic and African American adolescents and young adults. In her clinical work Young helps Hispanic females diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome through cutting edge integration of self-management science and mindfulness-based interventions. She implemented a culturally-tailored intervention for a school system of more than 11,000 primarily Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students. Her work is extended with potential scalability for underserved U.S. schools and districts. Her contribution to understanding the complex, psychological processes among stressful life events and development of depressive and anxious symptoms in marginalized and underserved youth has been widely disseminated in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Gilbert Gonzales, PhD, MHA, won the Friend of Nursing Award for significant contributions to the profession of nursing from an individual who is not a nurse or VUSN graduate. Gonzales is an assistant professor in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Medicine Health and 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, LGBTQIA health, and at the VUSN, he has lectured and led student seminars for many years. He has published more than 60 peer-reviewed studies and had his research covered by news outlets.
  • Jade (Ward) Vergara, MSN’13, received the Alma Gault Award for Public Service. As a VUSN instructor, she led community-based pilot quality improvement projects to improve culturally-sensitive health care for older adults in underserved Nashville communities. She partnered with the Vanderbilt Mobile Vaccination Clinic and with Catholic Charities to bolster COVID-19 vaccination rates in older adults and taught nursing students how to offer culturally sensitive vaccine education and outreach. Vaccination allowed these patients the opportunity to connect with others and reduce instances of isolation, which her students measured using the LUBBEN Social Network Scale. She has also worked with Rebuilding Together to repair the homes of older adults and has worked to understand social justice issues associated with living near a rock quarry. Her nominator said, “Jade has shown tremendous leadership in her advocacy efforts for Nashville’s underserved older adult population … Her nursing students have learned about the impact of social injustice and racism on underserved communities and the current disparities they face within social determinants of health.”
  • Erin Miller, MSN’19, received the Catherine Hanley Class of 1912 Rising Star Alumni Award. Miller is one of only two certified pediatric sexual assault nurse examiners in Florida. She helps child victims of sexual assault heal from trauma, collects forensic evidence and testifies in court. She serves as part of the VUSN SANE Advisory Board and helps others develop similar skills by serving as a preceptor and offering clinical training. She also shares her expertise in clinical immersion sessions and has spoken about her work to other nurses and to policy makers. She reminds children that “they are brave, strong, smart, kind and that they can do anything.”
  • Amy (Conklin) Pettigrew, PhD, BSN’72, received the Lulu Wolf Hassenplug Award for Distinguished Career in Nursing. She also celebrated her induction as a Quinq (a Vanderbilt alumnus who graduated at least 50 years earlier). Over the course of her career, she has presented on and published numerous research papers and has served as a leader in educating future nurses. She worked across the field in positions including in an ICU and as an assistant head nurse, clinical nurse specialist, assistant professor and chair of nursing at Xavier University, to name a few. She developed new programs and substantially increased enrollment. She worked as dean of Miami-Dade College of Nursing and led a diverse program. Since retirement, she serves on the National League of Nursing’s Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation and takes medical mission trips to Zambia and Brazil.
  • Bonnie Pilon, PhD, was selected as the Honorary Alumna. While leading the VUSN practice division at Vanderbilt, Pilon started many successful clinical practices across Tennessee, the staff of which continue to impact numerous vulnerable individuals. Pilon is recognized as a beloved and dedicated colleague, teacher, mentor and friend to thousands of students, alumni, faculty and staff. She came out of retirement to fight COVID-19, and worked with VUSN and Vanderbilt University Medical Center to handle tracing and vaccination. Her nominator said, “Bonnie deserves to be awarded the distinction of VUSN Honorary 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 who has had a larger impact on the nursing school and larger Vanderbilt community.”
  • Laura (Logsdon) Buchanan, MBA, BSN’84, received the Linda D. Norman Award for Innovation in Health Care and for using nursing experience and knowledge to create tools that solve health care issues. Buchanan co-founded the nursing institute for Health Care Design in 2008 to create and build a network of nurses interested in evidence-based design for health care organizations. Buchanan developed the organization’s website so nurses could become educated and connect on health care design and to be a resource of information. The institute became a nonprofit in 2010 and has grown to more than 150 members across the world, ranging from young to retired clinicians and including architects and designers from other disciplines. Buchanan’s nominator said, “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 and health care design and built a reputation in the industry as a champion of nurses having a seat at the table for design discussions. She is a pioneer and innovator who expands the boundaries of nursing. She sees a problem and is not afraid to tackle it.”

The 2022 Vanderbilt Alumni Association Awards were presented during Vanderbilt’s Reunion Oct. 7-9. Nominations are collected each spring. Descriptions of the qualifications for the awards are available here.