Bedelia Russell knows the impact an engaged faculty member can have on students. After all, it was a Tennessee Tech faculty member who shaped her path as a nurse and nurse educator. Now with nearly 20 years served as faculty in Tech’s Whitson-Hester School of Nursing, Russell seeks to share her passion for connecting and engaging with her students.
“I actually got into nursing because of an engaged faculty member,” Russell said.
Russell came to Tech from a rural community in southeast Tennessee as a biology major. During a student retreat, nursing faculty member Carol Jean Adkisson asked Russell if she had ever considered nursing. Russell never looked back.
“I loved it and had some amazing faculty and graduated with what I knew were a lot of opportunities,” she said.
After beginning her career at St. Thomas and Vanderbilt medical centers and completing master’s level work to become a pediatric nurse practitioner, Russell’s family found themselves back in Cookeville. Soon, she found she could have a profound impact on the field she loved as a nurse educator back where it all began, at Tennessee Tech.
“What was so great about it is I realized that, certainly one on one as a nurse with a patient you have a tremendous impact, but here I had an opportunity… to instill my education, my wisdom, my experiences and really inspire students.”
It’s an amplified impact and the opportunity to shape patient care through her students that keeps Russell excited about her work at the university. She also has a strong understanding of how important it is to offer students an education that encourages them to connect with and influence their communities.
“It was exciting to see their energy and the opportunity to really encourage them to be the advocates they need to be,” Russell said. “You can’t replace the influence of education on communities and connecting students in that way. Our responsibility as faculty members is to stay engaged in what is happening outside of these walls and this campus.”
That responsibility to prepare students with a relevant education that can impact their communities is something Russell takes seriously.
“Having engaged students keeps us accountable as faculty,” she said. “It keeps us accountable as a university. We can’t deliver education that’s not informed, that’s not current and relevant and will impact the community in which we sit. That’s the local community, the Upper Cumberland, but it is also whatever community that student goes out into. We are here to serve the community and influence economic development and education development in the community. As a product, the students stay engaged in taking that philosophy out with them and continue that multiplication, that replication factor where Tennessee Tech has influenced the state and the nation as a whole.”
One program that Russell has seen her students embrace is BEST (Be Each other’s Support Team) groups, hosted by grief support nonprofit Heart of the Cumberland. BEST groups are in-school support groups for students as young as second grade who have experienced loss of some kind. Russell works as a co-facilitator for BEST groups to go through a grief curriculum with the young students to find ways to cope with their emotions and experiences.
Russell’s nursing students at Tech who are interested in pediatrics and behavioral or mental health have also had opportunities to be involved in BEST groups as part of their clinical experiences. As they have moved beyond their time as Tech students, Russell has heard back from those students who have realized the benefit these types of groups could have in their own communities and are looking for ways to replicate those where they are now.
“That’s been really exciting to see that recent development,” Russell said. “If I can design learning activities that really push them so that they have to engage with their community, whether they make an A, that’s really not the goal. It is that I have pushed them to really look at and engage with that community where they are practicing. That is specific to nursing students, but in any discipline, you have to engage in what the community challenges are.”
Within the university community, Russell is focused on engagement as a working group leader for the university’s strategic plan.
“The strategic goal that I am working on and working with our working group leaders on is engagement for impact. We are really looking at what we do, how we deliver education, and what are the communities of interest that we are involved in. Do we need to be involved in different ones? Do we need to scale it up?”
It’s one of the ways Russell practices for herself what she tries to instill in her students.
“One thing that I hope the students take away is advocacy, being an advocate for their local communities. Maybe that’s at the state, maybe even at the national level one day, but really finding that thing that they are passionate about that they then will advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves and just knowing that they can influence that advocacy in communities and create positive change with their education and experience here at Tennessee Tech.
“You as an educated professional, you as a student coming out of Tennessee Tech, you are meant to go out and address those challenges, not just work for your own professional gain.”