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January 21, 2005

Dean Jairath Sets Out to Increase Nursing School's Prominence

By Warren Duffie

In 1973, after graduating from high school in Sault St. Marie, Ontario, Nalini Jairath had no idea she would become a nurse. She was an ambitious young woman who wanted to attend college, study science and become a renowned scholar.

Although nursing was a worthy profession, Jairath viewed it as a career that didn’t offer much intellectual stimulation. It seemed best suited for those who preferred to pursue diploma programs rather than the rigors of university life — those who seemed willing to “settle” rather than excel.

She later realized she was wrong.


Dean Nalini Jairath

“I was pretty arrogant,” she says. “It wasn’t until later on that I saw that nursing is a powerful vocation that uses the mind, heart, brain and emotions.”

During her senior year at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, Jairath met a fellow biochemistry major who was entering the field of nursing. The woman shared her experiences caring for patients, listening to their concerns and comforting grieving families. Jairath realized that nursing could afford her perhaps the most noble of ambitions: caring for others in their time of need.

“In nursing, you have the ability to care for people in a different way than you do in the other health professions,” she relates. “You can take people where they are in their lives and help them cope, adapt and improve. A physician will take a condition like heart disease and determine how to treat the physical illness. As a nurse, you treat illness as well, but your focus is also to help someone live — how they’ll get back to work or home, how you can help their family.”

Jairath’s career has offered her the best of both worlds: She has been able to help patients while pursuing scholarly ventures as a nurse, professor and researcher. Over the past 20 years, this cardiovascular expert has earned nearly $800,000 in grants and fellowships, and has published 25 journal articles and the book Coronary Heart Disease and Risk Factor Management: A Nursing Perspective.

This record of success led to her appointment as dean of Catholic University’s School of Nursing on Aug. 1, 2004.

“The CUA School of Nursing has historically enjoyed a well-deserved national and international reputation for excellence in health care education,” said Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., president, at the time of the appointment. “The school will be well served by Dr. Jairath, whose scholarly and academic reputation are well known among her peers in the nursing profession.”

Jairath’s Three Initiatives
As Father O’Connell alluded to, Jairath has inherited the leadership of a school with a tradition of success. CUA’s School of Nursing has long been in the top tier of nursing schools ranked in publications such as U.S. News & World Report, and its graduates are highly recruited. CUA alumni serve as the top administrators of at least eight nursing schools, including those of Yale University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Florida, Villanova University and the University of Cincinnati. Several have been presidents of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

In addition, the school regularly partners with 130 clinical agencies in the Washington, D.C., area to expose students to nursing practice, multicultural health care practices and cutting-edge research. But the dean wants to do more.

"Catholic University has a wonderful reputation and has made many valuable contributions to the field of nursing," says Jairath, a diminutive woman with a soft voice who articulates her ideas in a clear, authoritative manner. "We need to build on that success and increase our eminence as a leader in nursing leadering." To that effect, she plans to implement three initiatives over the next few years:

1.   Start a public relations campaign to enhance the school’s visibility and increase its national rankings.

The dean wants to shine a brighter spotlight on the nursing school. She once heard it described as a “quiet secret,” a place known for producing top-notch graduates but reluctant to blow its own horn.

“I think part of that stems from modesty,” Jairath says. “But I think that sometimes we don’t appreciate that much of what we do. I’ve had people at local hospitals tell me how wonderful our graduates are and how they want to hire them. So we need to get the word out about Catholic University and the School of Nursing.”

To further that goal, the school is launching an electronic newsletter for alumni and friends. Following the example of Father O’Connell’s corps of President’s Society student volunteers, Jairath also wants to establish a nursing “student ambassador” program. Members would help organize events and lectures, serve as greeters for events, compile information for the electronic newsletter, organize campus tours for potential nursing students and write letters of condolence to relatives of nursing alumni who have died.

“The students are keen on this idea,” Jairath says. “It gives us the chance to develop a culture where each generation of alumni passes something on to the next. It allows us to honor those who came before and pave the way for current and future students."

2.   Raise funds to launch pilot research initiatives and develop endowed chairs.

Jairath aims to establish a couple of endowed chairs, each of which cost about $2 million. She also would like to establish a research office within the nursing school. That office would employ administrative assistants experienced with grants and contracts to help write proposals. Currently, professors write their own grant proposals. The proposed office would allow faculty to devote more time to research, says Jairath. To facilitate these plans, she is working with the nursing school’s advisory development board, set up in 2003 to help raise money for research and other academic pursuits.

3.   Modernize school laboratories by purchasing new computerized mannequins and more diagnostic and monitoring equipment.

After acquiring state-of-the-art mannequins, professors will be able to precisely simulate emergency situations for students, testing their abilities to react. During such drills, faculty can stop students at any point, correct their mistakes and suggest improvements. Currently, the dean is working to raise private and corporate money to buy the mannequins, which cost about $35,000 each.

The dean explains: “If you were a patient, which would you rather have: a nurse who went through simulations in which a person’s heart stops, or a nurse for whom this is the first time someone’s heart has stopped on them — and it’s your heart that’s stopped?

Her Path to CUA
Jairath (with the accent on the first syllable, “Jair,” which is pronounced like the “Jer” in Jerry) was born in India near the foothills of the Himalayas but was raised in Canada. After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biochemistry, she earned her bachelor’s of science in nursing from Hamilton, Ontario’s McMaster University.

She then became a bedside nurse on the cardiology floor of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. It was an arduous work schedule. Jairath would work seven straight days, have a couple days off, then work seven consecutive nights.

After two years at St. Michael’s, Jairath began working on her Master of Science in Nursing degree at the University of Toronto. She worked as a research assistant and as a consultant for another hospital. After earning her master’s, Jairath worked as an instructor in the baccalaureate degree program for the nursing school at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnic Institute.

In 1990 she earned a doctorate with a cardiovascular specialty from the University of Toronto’s Institute of Medical Sciences and came to the United States to teach at the University of Massachusetts’ Worcester campus. There Jairath helped develop a cardiac nursing subspecialty and helped establish the university’s doctoral program in nursing. Most recently, from 1998 to 2004, she was a professor and senior researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Jairath’s journey to CUA began last year when she was heading up a meeting about a nursing-related grant partnership between several universities (including CUA) and the military. In attendance was Sister Rosemary Donley, a CUA nursing professor. After the meeting, Sister Donley was telling a professor from Johns Hopkins University about CUA’s search for a new nursing school dean. As Jairath walked by, the Johns Hopkins professor called her over and said, “Nalini would be really good. Are you interested in being a dean?”

“When I found out more, I decided to apply,” Jairath says.  “It seemed like a good fit because of CUA’s reputation and my memories of spending most of my elementary school years in Catholic schools. I also knew about the quality of the Catholic tradition of education and health care.

“What sets Catholic University apart is its emphasis on human values, personal dignity and spirituality,” she says. “With all the talk about the U.S. nursing shortage, there’s a movement to ‘fast-track’ nurses and get them in and out as quickly as possible. That’s understandable, but it’s a different model than we have at CUA. Our challenge is to produce nurses who are not only technologically proficient, but who are also leaders and committed to caring for the whole person, not just the disease.”   


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