In the spring of 1970, 16 ambitious young women graduated from the nursing program of Eastern Mennonite College. Fifty years later, nine of them gathered to swap stories of careers and degrees, relationships, births, and losses. While they had hoped to see one another in person at the 2020 Homecoming, the class met over Zoom due to the pandemic.
These 16 students were the very first to graduate from the newborn nursing program.
Professor Melody Cash met some of these alumni during a “Nursing Through the Decades” panel also held during Homecoming weekend.
“It was such a privilege to be able to engage with some of these alumni,” Cash said. “I was moved by their passion for nursing and so impressed by the impact they have had on the nursing profession, the healthcare system, and the world!”
As for the virtual reunion, “two and half hours was not enough to cover 50 years for all of us!” said Cynthia Toman ’70 of Ottawa, Canada. She sleuthed and called and emailed around for two years, tracking everyone down to invite them to the reunion. With threads of information gathered from EMU, social media, and friends of friends of friends, “eventually we did reach everybody!” Toman said.
A few classmates had passed away in the intervening years, but Toman was surprised to find that “one of the three people we thought were dead, we found was alive!”
Toman had tried to look up obituaries for the classmates who had passed away, to include them in a 50-page PDF booklet she, Yvonne Yousey ’70, and Pat Powell Tiller ’70 assembled with updates on each graduate’s life. But she couldn’t find an obituary for Doris Martin Thompson ’70. Eventually, Tillman’s sleuthing enabled Toman to make contact with Thompson, and “she was absolutely delighted to be declared not dead!” Toman said.
The group then had to find a day and time when most could meet virtually, joining from Oregon in the west all the way to France in the east. They settled on October 18, following the Homecoming worship service. Toman said that, after just an email or two, she was chatting with her classmates “like we were back in school,” remembering whose clinical uniform “was too short” or the time they practiced giving one another injections.
“You know, you watch yourself grow up through those experiences,” she reflected. “We were so very young, too, to come out of a program within four years, and we were then the ones who gave care to those in need.”
“It has been delightful for me to reconnect with those in my class who are still with us,” said Yousey, who now lives in Littleton, Colo. “When we graduated from college all those many years ago, we scattered and I did not keep in close contact with anyone.”
Yousey and Toman both hit the ground running after graduation. Yousey became an advanced practice nurse and certified pediatric nurse practitioner, and worked in safety net clinics in underserved areas of Colorado and North Carolina. She also provided primary care in school-based health clinics in Colorado.
Toman started her nursing career in Intensive Care Units before doing a voluntary service term in Puerto Rico with her husband Earl. They were stationed in such a remote area that she was the only healthcare provider for an hour in any direction, and their “VW van was the community’s ambulance.”
Toman and her family then returned to Canada, where she worked in critical care once again, and raised her children.
Both nurses went on to earn doctoral degrees – Yousey in health and behavioral science from the University of Colorado, Denver and Toman in history from the University of Ottawa, with special interests “in the history of healthcare and the history of nursing,” Toman said, such as the “political and socioeconomic influences” that led to modern nursing.
After earning their PhDs, both women went on to teach nursing – Toman at the University of Ottawa, and Yousey at Regis University; University of North Carolina, Charlotte; and University of Northern Colorado, Greeley.
“I enjoy lifelong learning, an idea that was promoted when I was studying at EMU, and as a result found myself regularly returning to school,” Yousey said.
Toman agreed that the educational foundation laid at EMU prepared her for how the rest of her career would unfold.
“I think it totally changed my life and set me on a path of service, and helped me to see my work as an extension of service – to see that it was more than earning a paycheck. It was about carrying out my faith in the process of caring for people, and our lives were never the same,” she said.
Speaking to students of today, both nurses stressed their love for the field.
“I believe more than ever that nursing is a wonderful profession and a key player in the healthcare arena. It offers a unique perspective on health that is essential and provides the opportunity to practice in a myriad of roles and different settings,” Yousey said. “Studying nursing is grueling, but the rewards and opportunities it affords as a profession are well worth it.”
“For me,” Toman said, “nursing is a privilege, and an incredible opportunity just to be with people, to walk with them through an illness experience. And you are caring for more than just the individual: a whole family, a whole community at times.”