School of Nursing recognizes alumni and friends for health care and education excellence

Award winners front row from left: Jason Williams and Shelza Rivas. Back row, from left: Ali Cocco, Betsy Babb Kennedy, Diane Welch Vines, Audra Rankin, Cassie Brady, and Sharon Holley (Not pictured: Jenna Smith)

In November, the Vanderbilt School of Nursing honored recipients of the 2023 Alumni Awards, a group of nurses and friends who go to great lengths to support communities, education and health equity. VUSN Alumni Awards are the highest awards given by the school. Nominations open each spring and recipients are chosen by the VUSN Alumni Association Board. Honorees are recognized during Vanderbilt’s Reunion each fall.

Alma Gault Award for Public Service

Diane Welch Vines, PhD, BSN’67, received the Alma Gault Award for Public Service for her dedication to caring for underserved populations and for her work as founder and director of the California State University in Bernardino Nursing Street Medicine Program, an organization that provides health care services to homeless, unsheltered, vulnerable patients and migrant farm workers and their families. 

“I am so pleased to receive this award from my alma mater,” Vines said. “Vanderbilt gave me so much in my career, so it is especially rewarding to receive the award in the name of this very special Dean.”  

Through this program, nursing students triage patients, provide health assessments and assist with medication management. Students build communication skills and experience assessing patient needs.

Vines credits the students she works with for much of her program’s success. She said she is thankful to be able to help them learn and to help support patient care. She helps nursing students get past medical needs and better understand vulnerable populations through conversations and empathy.

Vines collaborates and coordinates efforts across more than 30 service organizations to help improve care and reduce duplicate efforts.

Lulu Wolf Hassenplug Award for a Distinguished Career in Nursing

Betsy Babb Kennedy, BSN’89, MSN’93, PhD, received the Lulu Wolf Hassenplug Award for a Distinguished Career in Nursing in recognition of her professional leadership in nursing and achievements that benefit the universal nursing community. 

“She is known for her innovation and expertise in curriculum development, teaching and program evaluation, and for promoting equitable and inclusive learning environments,” her nominator wrote. “She champions professional development and facilitates opportunities for faculty to collaborate on research and scholarship. Kennedy’s guidance has helped many nurses excel in patient care and numerous others become national leaders.” 

Kennedy’s career began as a VUSN clinical instructor in 1993, since which time she has authored more than 30 journals and book chapters on everything from high-risk and critical care obstetrics to nursing education. She serves as associate dean for academics and curriculum affairs at the Vanderbilt School of Nursing and is a nationally recognized leader in nursing education and a cherished mentor to colleagues and students. 

“I want to recognize and thank all my VUSN colleagues and friends over the years for the work they do and for letting me have this career that has been so rich and meaningful,” Kennedy said. “My greatest joy has been the success and transformational impact they have had. It has truly been a privilege, and I am especially delighted that I share with the person for whom this award is named a deep appreciation for faculty. I am honored and humbled.” 

Linda D. Norman Award for Innovation in Health Care 

Clinical Assistant Professor Audra Rankin, MSN’08, who works at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing, received the Linda D. Norman Award for Innovation in Health Care for using her nursing experience and knowledge to solve health care issues. 

Rankin co-founded the podcast Rise with Emily & Audra to create a place where people can share experiences, learn from each other, build relationships and find new ways to see the world—all with improving health care in mind. Leveraging technology to facilitate conversation and promote learning inspires listeners to rise up and implement small changes that lead to big gains. As her nominator said, Rise with Emily & Audra is empowering, inspiring and uplifting.” 

“I believe that being a Vanderbilt nurse is a call to action to lead and transform while honoring tradition,” Rankin said. “Although these qualities are important, I am most proud that unconditional kindness remains one of our core values.” 

Rankin also works as associate faculty director at UNC Center for the Business of Health and serves as national health policy chair for the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners and health policy department manager for the Journal of Pediatric Health Care. 

“I try to remember two things that my Vanderbilt faculty taught me each day,” she said. “The first is to be curious about the world around you. The second, and perhaps the most important, is to lead with kindness. I believe that when you are kind—when you seek to understand and go into the world to serve with the best of intentions—innovative, transformational change can and will happen.” 

Colleen Conway-Welch Award for National Leadership 

Associate Professor Sharon Holley, DNP’10, who developed and leads the University of Alabama at Birmingham Nurse Midwifery program, received the Collen Conway-Welch Award for National Leadership for a career that has had an extensive impact on health care.  

Holley serves as a “bold and uncompromising advocate for patients and students,” wrote her nominator. She is an innovative teacher and leader who spent her 25-year career in high-level administrative roles as director of the Vanderbilt Faculty Midwifery Practice and chief for the Division of Nurse-Midwifery at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. In addition to her leadership of the UAB Nurse Midwifery program, she publishes research on improving patient safety and implementing evidence-based practice. 

“I was part of the first DNP cohort at Vanderbilt and loved my experience at this school,” Holley said. “The mentorship I received from Dr. Mavis Schorn as my committee chair, and all the professional connections and friendships I have made over the years from my time at Vanderbilt have allowed me to exceed my original professional goals.” 

Holley has helped improve pregnancy-associated morbidity and mortality through national leadership with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Partnership for Maternal Safety, American Nurses Association and American College of Nurse-Midwives. 

“Today I use the experience I gained from my time at Vanderbilt to carry forward the expectation for excellence in all I do, and all I have done to this point, in my career,” Holley said. “Dean Conway-Welch was a true leader in nursing education, and to be nominated for this award is such an honor.” 

Alumni Award for Clinical Achievement in Nursing 

Assistant Professor Ali Cocco, BS’08, MDiv’11, MSN’15, who works as a certified nurse-midwife at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, received Alumni Award for Clinical Achievement in Nursing for her outstanding achievement in clinical, patient-centered practice; leading by example; fostering a team-oriented environment; and continued dedication to using evidence-based practice to offer patients the highest level of care. 

“She has a special place in her heart for the more medically complex OB patients who seek holistic treatment of the whole woman but need the extra edge of someone who sees high-risk women,” wrote her nominator. “She flawlessly coordinates complex care for women while making each of them feel special and heard.” 

Cocco is a member of the VUMC Advanced Practice Leadership Board, the OB/Gyn Preconception Care Team, Postpartum Care Redesign Committee, Miscarriage Committee and Cervical Ripening Committee. She is also on the OB/Gyn Research Committee at VUMC. She is assistant division director of VUMC’s OB/Gyn, where she mentors team members, helping them build skills and develop confidence. 

“I have so much respect for the rigor of this program, for the education, the professors and the preceptors,” Cocco said. “I really believe that everyone deserves a midwife. I had no idea, as a PreSpecialty student, that I would care for individuals with such diverse backgrounds who also have complex prenatal needs. I take so much pride in being able to be a midwife.”  

Cocco also served on the Diversification & Inclusion Task Force of ACNM from 2013-2016 and is currently a peer reviewer for the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health and associate editor of their editorial board. 

Thomas L. Christenbery Award for Diversity and Inclusion 

Assistant Professor Shelza Rivas, BA’12, DNP’17, MSN’15, recipient of the Thomas L. Christenbery Award for Diversity and Inclusion, is originally from Lima, Peru, fluent in Spanish and English, and passionate about health care access for Hispanic/Latinx patients and communities. While a student at the School of Nursing, she established the Hispanic/Latinx Student Nurses Affinity Group, for which she now serves as faculty advisor. 

“Shelza provides a safe space through understanding the unique academic experience that Hispanic/Latinx students encounter,” wrote her nominator. 

As faculty for the PreSpecialty community health course, she led a collaborative quality improvement project at the Primeros Pasos clinic in rural Guatemala. The efforts improved health care access by adding a mobile clinic, workshops, and a sustained collaboration between the clinic and the School of Nursing. 

“As a Latina and first-generation immigrant, my goal as a nurse practitioner and educator has always been to improve the lives of people within the Hispanic/Latino community by bridging the gaps in patient care and within the nursing student experience at VUSN,” Rivas said, adding that she knew Tom Christenbery as a professor and colleague, and is honored to receive an award that bears his name. “Welcoming the recognition of my work in the diversity and inclusion space by receiving an award named in Tom’s honor is a tremendous privilege and accomplishment for me.” 

Rivas continues to share information with Spanish-speaking communities in Nashville on GYN-related cancers, dementia, caregiver burnout and vaccinations. She is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses and a mentor to the Pre-Nursing Society who actively promotes inclusivity while embracing the diversity within nursing. 

Catherine Hanley Class of 1912 Rising Star Award 

Jason Williams, MSN’16, PMC’21, PMC’22, DNP’23, , a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, received the Catherine Hanley Class of 1912 Rising Star Award for his work to mitigate health disparities in the Black community, for showing outstanding promise in health care and bringing honor to the Vanderbilt degree. 

“Jason’s commitment to community goes beyond his job roles and responsibilities,” wrote his nominator. “He is a speaker and expert for health events throughout Arkansas and Tennessee.” 

He mentors Black youth, helping them build the confidence and skills necessary to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. He has also built bikes for children, led affinity groups and promoted diversity and inclusion. 

Williams is committed to health care rights for all and implemented a multifocal approach to decrease health, social and educational disparities and inequities in African American communities, especially in males of all ages. 

Williams found the award humbling, especially as a first-generation student. “To receive this award in honor of the first graduate resonates with me in many ways,” he said. “I am the first in my immediate family (parents and grandparents) to graduate with an undergraduate degree. Then, to obtain three master degrees and my DNP from a prestigious university is something I could never imagine.” 

He quotes Marian Wright Edelman, saying “’You can’t be what you can’t see.’ It is my honor and duty to be an inspiration to those coming behind me, as well as, to represent the ideas, benefits, and legacy of VUSN. While I have huge shoes to fill in honor of Catherine Hanley, I look forward to putting my best foot forward and continuing to break barriers.” 

Williams is chapter president of the National Black Nurses Association in Little Rock and has served as the Arkansas State Director of Social Action of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. 

Friend of Nursing Award 

Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics Cassie Brady, HO’12, MD, works for the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. She received the Friend of Nursing award because, as her nominator wrote, “she promotes the role of nurses in caring for pediatric patients and families and actively participates in their education.” 

Brady advocates for gender-affirming care, and provides guest lectures at the School of Nursing, where she is one of the most popular speakers with nursing students. 

“Doctor Brady is an excellent resource and her dedication to patients is evident,” said one student. Another said, “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.”  

Brady said she cherishes the moments she has with nurses, calling them helpful, patient and reliable.  

“I would just like to say that this award means a lot to me,” Brady said. “I have always felt that nurses are and always will remain an integral part of our medical teams. To learn about what amazing things the alumni of the nursing school are doing, I am amazed. I feel so honored and humbled to receive this award from such an amazing group.” 

Friend of Nursing Award 

Jenna Smith, a licensed clinical social worker at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, received the Friend of Nursing Award for her commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration, patient care and social justice, as well as her expertise, willingness to share knowledge and dedication to lifelong learning. 

“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,” wrote her nominator. “Her collaborative approach, working hand in hand with nurses and other health care professionals, has resulted in comprehensive care plans that holistically meet the needs of patients.” 

Smith serves as leader of the social service and behavioral health integration at the West End Clinic (formerly known as the Clinic at Mercury Courts) and she is a mentor to nursing and allied health students and advocate for vulnerable populations. She also collaborates on creating resiliency hubs with Urban Housing Solutions and the School of Nursing. 

“Receiving the Friend of Nursing award is such an honor. I am so excited for all the work we have done and will continue to do as social work and nursing professionals come together for our community,” said Smith. “Being recognized as a contributor to the amazing work being done by VUSN in the community to increase health equity and access to quality health care is so special to me!”