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What I Did Before

Tristan Strong is one of five VUSN students with unusual backgrounds that led them to Vanderbilt. Photo by Daniel Dubois.

Miss Mississippi, a seismologist, a paramedic, a football player and a Peace Corps worker walk into a nursing school.

No, no joke.

Those are the backgrounds of some current Vanderbilt University School of Nursing (VUSN) students. Use the links below to discover what drew them to VUSN.

Tristan Strong

Helen Qian

Rita Peters

Jennifer Neczypor

Kristian Dambrino


Tristan Strong
Football Experience Comes in Handy

Tristan Strong

Tristan Strong Photo by Daniel Dubois.

What would inspire a big, tough, immovable linebacker to become a nurse? First-year PreSpecialty student Tristan Strong said it was the stories his mother, Jodi Rodriguez, shared about her job. He remembers the passion she showed for nursing.

“She really loved her job. Seeing how passionate she was about her work influenced my career choice,” he said.

Vanderbilt football fans will recall Strong as a redshirt freshman who played three years for the Commodores before being sidelined with a career-ending torn ACL.

“I had aspirations for a professional football career throughout high school and most of college, but luckily I had people instill in me the fact that I needed to have a backup plan,” Strong said. He graduated from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development in 2012 with a degree in human and organizational development.

He said his football career helped prepare him for his future as a health care provider.

“Being a student-athlete was time-consuming,” Strong said. “It was essential that I develop efficient time management skills. I also learned how to function effectively in a team environment. Perseverance was the major lesson I developed as a student athlete.”

One could say that the traits that made him a great linebacker—quickness, intelligence, versatility and strength—will also make him a great nurse.

“Nursing is something I felt I could excel in,” Strong said. “I always knew I wanted to do something in the health care field. While I was in college, I just wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go in.”

Strong’s parents tell him how proud they are of his decision to enter into nursing. They say their son possesses the work ethic and moral compass to deliver quality care.

Yet it wasn’t until he landed his first job with a medical technology company that he looked to the clinical side of health care.

“That is the experience that drew me into the nursing field,” he said. “I knew I wanted to come back to Vanderbilt to get my nursing degree.”

While preparing for nursing school, Strong worked for Philips Healthcare in its Nashville medical equipment division during the day and took night classes to satisfy his prerequisites.

Strong, who holds the Hilliard and Nancy Travis and George R. Burrus scholarships, plans to graduate as a family nurse practitioner in 2018.

“I absolutely love the program,” Strong said. “I have the ability to provide care to families and patients across their lifespan. I will be able to build and continue relationships with them. That is the main reason I was attracted to family practice—I have a passion for helping people, just like my mom.”

– by Jessica Pasley


Helen Qian. Photo by Daniel Dubois.

Helen Qian
From Science of NASA to Science of Nursing

Helen Qian was a young girl living in Beijing, China, when the July 1976 Tangshan earthquake occurred, claiming the lives of more than 240,000 people.

“People were very rattled. No one wanted to go back to their apartments. We lived in a crowded tent city for several months,” said Qian, a Vanderbilt University School of Nursing post-master’s certificate student. “As a child, it was an adventure to me, but as I grew up, it made me want to predict earthquakes.”

The tragedy awakened in her a desire to help people. Having moved to the U.S., Qian earned a degree in geophysics and applied geophysics, and then went to the California Institute of Technology to study seismology.

“I realized pretty quickly that earthquakes are not predictable, at least not within my lifetime. Most of the research is very esoteric,” Qian said. “While every seismograph squiggle means something, I didn’t see the relevance of the study for average people.”

She left her graduate studies and worked in a seismology lab, taking evening classes at a community college.

She taught herself CD-ROM programming and landed a job at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a part of NASA. Qian developed educational interactive CD-ROMs about Jupiter, Saturn and Earth, and later became a database programmer and contractor with JPL.

When she wanted a career change, the idea of becoming a nurse surfaced.

“Nursing: It was just the spark I needed. I had always had an interest in the medical field,” she said. “I was already a certified wilderness EMT and volunteering my time with the Pasadena Fire Department at Rose Bowl events. So going into nursing was a natural transition. I did some more research and found out about nurse practitioners. I felt it was a perfect fit for me.”

At 40 years old, Qian entered the nursing program at Azusa Pacific University, earning her nurse practitioner degree in 2011. She worked at a health clinic in sparsely populated Eastern California for three years, then moved to an urban ER. “I love being able to help people and see the difference my actions make in improving others’ lives,” Qian said.

At an American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) conference, she learned about Vanderbilt’s post-master’s Emergency Nurse Practitioner Program and applied immediately.

She credits her love for knowledge in helping her transition smoothly into each field.

“The most important thing you learn at school is how to learn,” Qian said. “My training in seismology gave me a solid understanding of the scientific methods and how to evaluate evidence, which is very useful in implementing evidence-based practice as a nurse practitioner. Working as a software developer gave me the analytic and problem-solving skills. Learning how to learn is what enabled me to become a software developer, and it’s also broadening my knowledge as an NP—I’m not limited to the facts I can learn during school.”

– by Tavia Smith


Rita Peters. Photo by Joe Howell.

Rita Peters
A Nursing Career 20 Years in the Making

At 5:15 a.m. every weekday, Rita Peters makes a two-hour trek from Indian Mound, Tennessee, to Nashville for a full day of classes at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.

She plays audio textbooks and recorded class lectures, ingesting and memorizing the material as she drives. The commute, four hours round trip, is her study period.

At age 50—the oldest member of the School of Nursing class of 2018—she’s far from a traditional student with anything but conventional studying methods. But she couldn’t pass up the opportunity, one she almost delayed in August 2016 to take care of her father, James, who was terminally ill with cancer. He wouldn’t hear of it.

Simultaneously, she’s been a daughter and caregiver for aging parents. She’s a wife to Steve, who is active duty military, and mother of two children: Michael, 26, and Abbigail, 11. Peters works to find balance to pursue a nursing career 25 years in the making.

A choking scare in 1991 with then 1-year-old Michael led her to enroll in a CPR class. She got “bit by the bug,” she said. By 1994, she had a paramedic license and began working for her hometown emergency medical service, Montgomery County EMS, in Clarksville, Tennessee.

“I enjoyed the excitement of something different every time the phone rang. I enjoyed meeting people, and I enjoyed supporting my community,” Peters said.

In 2005, she was thrust into a different part of health care. Her daughter was born 10 weeks premature and has Down syndrome. Abbigail stayed 89 days at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Peters became close with the nurses, and later called on those nurses for advice on applying to the School of Nursing.

“I love being a paramedic and I love that component of health and being on the frontlines, but I also recognized as I got older that I could not do it forever. It’s hard on you, working 24 hours,” she said.

Peters got the call Aug. 8—her dad’s birthday—that she had been accepted to the program, she recalls tearfully. He passed away Sept. 25, 2016. She wants to follow a nursing track in adult geriatric primary care, with hopes of continuing to care for the adult community of Indian Mound. She’s grateful to the School of Nursing for giving her this opportunity and the financial support of the Dr. Robert H. Elrod Scholarship Fund.

“The school is very pro-family and they do a lot of promoting of self-care. Everyone from the course coordinator to the instructors to the adviser, every person I have met goes above and beyond for the students,” she said. “They take time out for you. It is an amazing program that they can take 154 students and individualize the program for every student.”

– by Christina Echegaray


Jennifer Neczypor. Photo by Susan Urmy.

Jennifer Neczypor
Global Focus Brings Nursing into View

Few can say they’ve been rescued from a tropical island as a smoldering volcano threatened to erupt, enjoyed an audience with the Dalai Lama, and written a screenplay about Sino-Tibetan politics, Tibetan history and Buddhist mythology—all before age 30. Jennifer Neczypor, a dual nurse-midwife/family nurse practitioner student who graduated in May, has done all this and more.

To track Neczypor’s whirlwind adventures you’ll need a world map, a handful of push pins and a hefty dose of caffeine. As a high school student in Sacramento, California, she went on her first service trip to a Mexican orphanage. In college, she took study abroad/service trips to Guatemala, Ireland and India while completing two degrees, one in Spanish and philosophy and the other in screenwriting, at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “My parents made sure we were all very socially conscious, and they encouraged us to follow our passions, no matter what they might be,” she explained. “For me, I really loved traveling and meeting people from other cultures.”

While in India, her student group enjoyed an audience with the Dalai Lama, an event Neczypor calls life changing. After college, she volunteered for the Peace Corps and served in Vanuatu, a South Pacific island chain formed by a collection of active volcanoes. This led to the dramatic airlift.

“I think the pilot hated me because I made him put all our pets on the plane with us,” she laughed. “He was looking at me like, ‘Seriously?’ We put our cats in bags of rice. They were moving around and meowing, and he was really annoyed. It was a seven-person plane, and one girl even brought her pig.”

Neczypor returned to California and tried putting her college degree to work in the film industry, but she realized her priorities had shifted. After some soul-searching, she decided the role of nurse practitioner, and especially that of nurse-midwife, best suited her mindset. Vanderbilt proved to be the perfect fit, and she was also able to complete a multidisciplinary Global Health certificate offered by the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health (VIGH).

Neczypor’s passion for service was recognized when she received the Frist Global Health Leader Award through VIGH, allowing her to head to Nepal after graduation to work with the nonprofit maternal-fetal medicine organization, One Heart World-Wide. In the same year, she received the American College of Nurse-Midwives’ Jeanne Raisler International Award for Midwifery. At VUSN, she held the Hillard and Nancy Thomas Scholarship and the Pass It Forward Scholarship. “Service is definitely going to always be a big priority for me,” she said. “My ideal job will be working with low-income or underserved women, and I would love to keep working with the Spanish-speaking population or the refugee community.”

– by Jill Clendening


Kristian Dambrino. Photo by Daniel Dubois.

Kristian Dambrino
What Entertaining and Healing Have in Common

Kristian Dambrino competed in the Miss America pageant, sang on cruise ships, performed musical comedy in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, photographed weddings and recorded albums before she started classes at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.

Oh, and she sang for Oprah once.

She performed for the billionaire celebrity in 2005 as the reigning Miss Mississippi. Winfrey was at the opening of the Oprah Winfrey Boys & Girls Club in Kosciusko, Mississippi, a year after the state was hit by Hurricane Katrina. Dambrino sang “Pearlington’s Prayer,” a song she’d written after witnessing the storm damage firsthand. The song led her to found the Pearlington’s Prayer Project, a nonprofit that helped raise $20,000 for survivors.

After Dambrino’s year as Miss Mississippi was over, she used her pageant scholarship money to obtain a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design from Delta State University. She then spent a couple of years entertaining on Celebrity Cruises’ Mercury ship and performing at a theater in Pigeon Forge. In 2010, she moved to Nashville where she began working as a graphic designer and photographer. Like many other creative people in Nashville, she also continued making music.

It was only a few years later that she realized something was missing from her life.

“When I was younger, I was more focused on entertaining,” said Dambrino, now 31. “I now wanted to pursue another career that would bring as much excitement and healing as music.”

Although she enjoyed graphic design, she desired a job away from a desk where she could interact with people. Dambrino was interested in nursing, so her employer allowed her the flexibility to shadow nurses in various health care settings. Of all those she shadowed, it was psychiatric nurse practitioners who inspired her most.

“My circuitous past has allowed me to meet many different types of people from all over the world, and I have learned mental illness does not discriminate,” Dambrino said. When she considered how she had lost friends to addiction and mental illness, she knew she wanted to be a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner.

Despite having earned the BFA and a master certificate in music business from Berklee College of Music, she lacked the science and statistics prerequisites to apply to nursing school. While continuing to work as a graphic designer, she commuted back and forth to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro to complete those classes.

In 2015, she was accepted into Vanderbilt’s Master of Science in Nursing program to become a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner. The recipient of the Dean Colleen Conway-Welch Scholarship, she’s scheduled to graduate in August.

Even in the midst of the pressure and intensity of classes and clinical rotations, Dambrino found a way to keep making music a big part of her life. Last year, she put out a jazz album called “Bluer Than This” with respected blues and jazz keyboardist Fish Michie. The album recently won the Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters Award for Best Contemporary Music Composition of 2017.

– by Tom Wilemon

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