nurses week spotlight on ellen olshansky founding director of the uc irvine program in nursing scienceThis Nurses Week, we are featuring the nurse leaders who helped build our school.

One reason that the UCI Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing curriculum emphasizes community health is in large part because of Ellen Olshansky, the founding director of the Program in Nursing Science.

“I became a nurse because I have always been concerned with making our society healthier and more equitable,” she recalls. As a nurse, she felt that she could integrate policy and politics into her work to advance health policy in pursuit of social justice.

“I bring a foundation from social work and my entire nursing career has been at the intersection of nursing and social work, focusing on what we now refer to as social determinants of health,” says Olshansky, who earned her bachelor’s in social work at UC Berkeley.

“I believe that we must care for people from a holistic perspective that includes social, structural issues.”

When Olshansky was recruited to lead and build the newly-established program in 2007, her goal was to build the foundation for a school that could produce nurses primed to address those issues head-on.

“My vision was to focus on community, to create a school that works collaboratively with community members and leaders, embracing the importance of social determinants of health,” she says.

Olshansky also wanted to create a nursing school that encourages interdisciplinary work, both with other healthcare professionals and professionals in other disciplines.

More than that, however, she wanted the public and the university to understand nursing from all of its sides, including clinical practice, research, service and policy work.

To help her achieve that, she hired five senate faculty:

  • E. Alison Holman, PhD
  • Jill Berg, PhD, RN
  • Ruth Mulnard, DNSc, RN
  • Jung-Ah Lee, PhD
  • Sarah Choi, PhD

And six clinical faculty:

  • Susanne Phillips, DNP
  • Susan Tiso, DNP
  • Camille Fitzpatrick, MSN
  • Mary Knudtson, DNS
  • Ellen Lewis, MS
  • Karen Deck, MSN

Right away, alongside Ellen Lewis and Susan Tiso, Olshansky got to work on a proposal for a Master’s Entry Program in Nursing, which was approved in 2009. That same year, she submitted a proposal for a nursing PhD program, which was approved in 2012.

After seven years of leading the program, Olshansky stepped down in 2014 to build a nursing department in the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

“I am very proud of leading the program during an incredibly difficult economic time,” she says, referencing the Great Recession. “Despite the challenges, we opened the bachelor of science degree, the master’s and PhD programs.”

Olshansky’s work left the program in a favorable position to receive funding from the William & Sue Gross Family Foundation to establish it as a school, which happened with a $40 million gift in 2016.

She established the Ellen Olshansky Founding Director Endowment to support nursing PhD students in 2016, and continues to support the school in strategic planning and fundraising efforts, as well as mentoring students.

She was recently awarded a Edward A. Dickson Professor Emeritus Award through the University of California, with funding to conduct a small qualitative study on the experience of ICU nurses’ who are taking care of patients with COVID-19. She is working with and mentoring two students in the MEPN program: Benjamin Latham-Bryman and Lacye Lawson.

“I am proud to continue my involvement in the school as professor emerita.”

Although Olshansky is retired, she is working on another career: becoming a rabbi. She says it is not necessarily the 180 it appears to be.

“I believe I am building on my strong foundation as a nurse: caring for people, including their spiritual selves; communities; and the public, with a goal toward achieving toward ‘tikkun olam,’ a Hebrew phrase that means healing the world — of racism, hatred, war, disease, and so many other factors that impact people’s lives.”