By Jefferson Geiger
After eight decades, Evelyn L. Spiro School of Nursing alumni can be found saving lives locally, teaching the next generation of nurses throughout America, writing books that have been translated into multiple languages around the globe, and much more.
Roughly a third of Wagner College’s students — whether they are working on their Bachelor of Science in Nursing straight out of high school, pursuing the Family Nurse Practitioner degree as a graduate, or crossing the stage with a Doctorate of Nursing Practice — attend the widely successful program, now celebrating its 80th year.
The school’s founding dean, Mary Delia Burr, was ahead of her time.
“It was two years into World War II when women were coming back to school, and she had enough insight at that time to say that she wanted it to be a four-year program,” said Patricia Tooker ’79 M’95 D’16, Kimberly H. Spiro Dean of Nursing. “Coming out of the gate in the ’40s, there was a vision of leadership and quality.”
The Evelyn L. Spiro School of Nursing: A timeline
1943: Nursing program founded, Mary Delia Burr named the first dean
More so than a two-year degree, Tooker said, a bachelor’s program gives students a more well-rounded education as they connect beyond the medical field into departments like the social sciences and humanities.
The quality of education is evident in the caliber of alumni the school produced. Claire Mintzer Fagin, one of the first nursing students who received her bachelor’s in 1948, went on to become interim president at the University of Pennsylvania. Fagin Hall, the home of Penn’s School of Nursing, is named in her honor.
Evelyn Lindfors Spiro graduated a year later, in 1949, as did her husband, Don. Their generosity to the school is the reason it was christened to bear Evelyn’s name in 2006. Her daughter Kimberly H. Spiro serves as a trustee of the Donald W. Spiro Foundation and sits on the Wagner College Board of Trustees.
A few other notable alumni include Beverly Hohne Whipple ’62, a professor emerita of Rutgers University known for her work in women’s health and sexual physiology, and Sharon Richie-Melvan ’71, who worked in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps for 25 years.
Into the 21st century
In the years since those alumni graduated, the nursing school has evolved. In addition to the four-year degree, students can participate in the accelerated program to get a bachelor’s degree in 15 months if they already have a degree. For graduate students, there is the family nurse practitioner degree or nurse educator degree, as well as certificate options for both.
The nursing school is also home to Wagner College’s only doctoral program, the Doctorate of Nursing Practice. The degree is focused on crisis management, disaster preparedness and population health. It was formulated in wake of disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.
“We created it out of what we felt to be a need to educate nurses at the highest level, on responding to unforeseen, catastrophic-type of events,” Tooker said.
Disaster struck again with the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, an extremely hands-on degree needed to pivot to delivering the same top-notch education — safely. In a major hotspot like New York City, Wagner College faculty had to learn how to teach virtually.
Not being allowed in hospitals made it difficult to do clinic-based programs, but the Nursing Resource Center and simulation lab remained open. Clinical work in places like pediatric, maternity, psychiatric or geriatric units was then done either with simulators or virtually with case studies and interactive videos.
“It worked,” Tooker said, adding that a silver lining was bringing the school into the 21st century with online learning. “We didn't skip a beat. My students graduated on time.”
The Wagner difference
Wagner’s flexibility and unwavering dedication to students greatly impacted the academic and professional career of Christopher Livoti ’23. A Marine veteran and Staten Island native, Livoti juggled both completing his nursing degree and joining the New York City Fire Department. Livoti wanted to join FDNY’s academy in the spring, yet that required taking his final nursing tests early. The school accommodated him.
“If he did not attend the academy, he would have jeopardized his chance to join the FDNY until the next round of applicants, which often takes a few years,” Tooker said. “He was unable to attend pinning, senior awards and commencement because of his training schedule. Now he is both a professional nurse and a member of New York’s Bravest.”
Not only did Livoti take the exams early and pass, but he won the Ellen Horrman Award, presented to a student who demonstrates academic excellence in nursing during the clinical experience.
“I was so awed by all that he was accomplishing,” Tooker said. “Boy, did he blossom. He made it work. He put in ridiculous hours and he was successful. It takes a special person like Chris. I’m very proud of him.”
Livoti said the two fields complement each other, especially the softer skills such as calming communication.
“You’re trying to help people, potentially on the worst day of their lives, and make their day better,” Livoti said of being a firefighter. “I love the job.”