Winston-Salem State University’s very first nursing class was feted during last week’s Homecoming.
The nursing program at WSSU, then Winston-Salem Teachers College, was established in 1953 by an act of the General Assembly in response to a state nursing shortage. Thirty-three students enrolled in WSSU’s first class. Twelve of them would graduate in 1957 and go on to long careers in medicine.
“We would not be where we are without the foundation that was laid in the past, the foundation that was laid by our leaders, our students and our faculty, and this gala is about celebrating that past,” said Lenora Campbell, associate dean of WSSU’s Division of Nursing.
The Class of 1957 was feted last Thursday during a gala at the Anderson Center. The class, which was made up of all black women, graduated during the era of segregation, as a result, there were few opportunities for black students to get the clinical experience they needed locally. Many had to travel North for that training.
“It’s been a long road but it’s paid off,” said Sadie Webster, a member of the class of 1957.
Five of the 12 Class of ’57 graduates have passed away. Webster, whose long career included serving as dean of WSSU’s nursing program, was the only class member in attendance at the gala.
“We were dedicated and committed students and, of course, we knew we could not come half stepping, there was no half stepping at that time,” said Webster, who was greeted with a standing ovation when she took to the podium.
Webster said she became a nurse because it was her dream to help people. She recalled that the school was strict and strenuous, but she loved it and said that she couldn’t wait to serve patients.
Today, the WSSU nursing program is nothing like the one Webster was enrolled in. There are about 900 students studying nursing, making it the most popular program of study at WSSU. The program is the largest producer of baccalaureate-prepared nurses in the state, with a 94 percent state board passage rate. WSSU also offers a master’s degree program in nursing and is preparing to add a doctoral program next year.
Gwendolyn Andrews, who taught members ofthe Class of 1957, said that she’s amazed to see what WSSU’s nursing program has become.
“It’s overwhelming almost. (I have) a great sense of pride,” she said. “It’s really awesome how much the school has grown from the time that we started out to what we’re doing now.”
Teaching at WSSU was Andrews’ first job as a nursing instructor. She landed it only a few years after she graduated from college. While today’s nursing program uses things like high tech manikins that can simulate a variety health problems, Andrews said her class had simple “dolls” that they called “Mr. and Mrs. Chase” and “Baby Chase.”
Dr. Sylvia Flack, the founding dean of the School of Health Sciences and founder and executive director of the WSSU Center of Excellence for the Elimination of Health Disparities, gave the keynote address. The WSSU nursing alumna told the crowd that she’s always tried to live up to the legacy left by that first class.
“They left a legacy of persistence in the face of diversity,” said Flack. “We know that. We have seen that because we have faced adversity. They have a legacy of excellence. They have a legacy of high expectations.”
Like in the 1950s, Campbell said there is still a nursing shortage that is especially being felt in rural areas. With the many new patients that will be seen by doctors when the federal health care law is fully implemented in 2014, there will be an even greater need for new nurses, she said.