Jean Giddens reflects on a decade as dean of the VCU School of Nursing and considers the future of nursing education

October 4, 2023

Author: Caitlin Hanbury

Giddens discusses the experiences that have shaped her approach to leadership and what she sees as the school’s biggest opportunities and challenges ahead.

jean giddens
Jean Giddens, Ph.D., dean of the School of Nursing, said her well-known enthusiasm is “grounded in my love of this work and the people in our school.”

Jean Giddens, Ph.D., began her tenure as dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing in the summer of 2013. Over the last decade, she has led the school in undertaking major nursing curriculum revisions, growing its research portfolio and expanding capacity of its programs. In an interview, she reflected on the last 10 years, the experiences that have shaped her approach to leadership and what she sees as the school’s biggest opportunities and challenges ahead.

What drew you to VCU and the School of Nursing? What is memorable from your first months in the role as dean?
I remember interviewing at VCU and was struck by the energy. It was clear that VCU had great potential, and I was pretty sure it was a school that I could provide added value. After I accepted the position and moved here, I realized that the energy and positivity I felt as an applicant was not just people on good behavior for the interview process — this was truly a reflection of the day-to-day experiences of those who worked there.

students share a table with Jean Giddens in the school's garden
Jean Giddens, Ph.D., dean of the School of Nursing, said one of her strongest motivations is “to ensure our students get the best education possible.” (Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

What has surprised you most about the last 10 years?
Honestly, I have been surprised by how fast the time has gone. Ten years… holy cow! And, so much has happened in ten years both in our personal lives as well as within our society — and these all play into the VCU School of Nursing experiences.

Can you share a favorite story or experience from your time as dean?
I have so many wonderful stories and experiences so it is hard to pick just one but a recent experience does come to mind. I have enjoyed regularly attending the VCU men’s basketball games over the past decade and there have been several players that I particularly enjoyed watching when they were on the team — one being Mo Alie-Cox. VCU recently invited him back as the commencement speaker. As you might know, after graduation he was drafted to play in the NFL and is currently a professional football player with the Indianapolis Colts. Anyway, he was very gracious to agree to have a picture taken with the nerdy, middle-aged nursing dean.

alumnus mo alie cox poses for a graduation photo with jean giddens
Jean Giddens, Ph.D., poses for a May 2023 commencement candid with Mo Alie Cox (Jean Giddens)

How has your leadership evolved in the course of your time at VCU? What keeps you motivated and energized?
Although I had a bit of leadership experience when I arrived at VCU, I had never been “the dean” before and so there was clearly a learning curve for me — not only in role transition but also adjusting to Virginia, to Richmond and to VCU. Over the 10 years, I would say my leadership skills have evolved. I have learned from previous mistakes, learned from situations that did not go as planned. And, have developed great depth and breadth in these skills. Also, there has been a deepening of relationships with those within the organization and our external stakeholders. I have enjoyed close relationships with my peer deans at VCU and my peer deans across academic nursing.

How has nursing education changed in the last decade?
There have been a number of changes so I’ll mention just a few. One of the biggest changes has been greater attention to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for a more diverse nursing workforce as well as ensuring our students are well-prepared to understand and address health inequities as part of their practice. I would also be remiss not to mention the long-standing effect the pandemic has had on nursing education and nursing in general. Although the use of simulation and other online technologies have been part of nursing education for many years, the importance of these learning modalities has accelerated. Finally, the last decade has seen a mass exodus of very senior academic nursing deans and leaders due to aging out and retirements. There has been a huge deficit in experienced nursing leaders nationwide. An expression that sums up this phenomenon is “The cupboards are bare,” and it will take years for an ample supply of experienced academic nursing leaders to be available to lead nursing education in the future.

You are the chair-elect of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and will begin your term as chair in 2024. Tell us about that position and how it intersects with your work as dean.
This is a fabulous opportunity to serve and advance our profession at the national level. I was elected by my peer group of over 860 AACN member deans and directors. To be elected by this group of esteemed colleagues is truly an honor and a privilege. My previous work co-leading the redesign of the AACN 2021 Essentials: Core Competencies for Professional Nursing Education was so gratifying because of the impact this work will have on the future of health care through a better-educated nursing workforce. As chair of AACN, I will have the opportunity to facilitate implementation of the new standards and also guide our professional organization through this time of transition.

When someone at VCU mentions “Dean Jean,” they are alluding to your well-known enthusiasm, problem-solving acumen and energetic leadership. Which of your characteristics do you rely on most to be a successful leader?
The enthusiasm is genuine, and it is grounded in my love of this work and the people in our school. I love to solve complex problems and love to pursue and support new ideas. 

The biggest motivator for me here at VCU is our students, faculty and staff. It gives me such great joy to be part of these successes. I have also enjoyed the opportunity to develop and mentor many nurse educators who have themselves gone on to leadership positions. VCU is a great training ground for academic leaders.

Jean Giddens, Ph.D.

The school is a leader in so many respects — undergraduate education, community engagement and research, to name a few. Of the many accomplishments, what fills you with the most pride?
It is really hard to name just one. You are right, we have had so many accomplishments, and I am proud of all! I have such pride in our faculty and staff who truly have created a cutting-edge new curriculum. Their work will be a model for other schools across the country.

I have great pride for the progress made in our research efforts. Our faculty have received extensive funding to work on clinical problems that matter. These efforts have increased our research prominence among nursing schools.

Our school has also had such great success in developing relationships with donors which has resulted in awarding over $4 million a year in scholarships. That is something I would have never believed could happen but here we are, and it is an enormous benefit to our students.

And, speaking of students, we have been very successful with our intentional efforts to attract a more diverse student body. We have one of the most diverse student bodies in university-based nursing programs in Virginia.

Our school is a national model for care coordination and wellness support in the community and simultaneously supports interprofessional clinical education — the highest standard of interprofessional education that can be offered. 

Jean Giddens smiles and vests students at the vesting ceremony
Jean Giddens, Ph.D., said the energy and positivity she encountered when she first visited the VCU School of Nursing is part of the school’s day-to-day atmosphere. (Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

All of these accomplishments are built on the long-standing excellence in the school. The one I am most proud of is the establishment of the VCU School of Nursing faculty practice model in collaboration with VCU Health. This allows our faculty to have practice as a component of their faculty role and provides the opportunity for a new model for clinical education with our nurse practitioner students. This model is an important source of recruitment of nurse practitioners into faculty roles. This may not seem like a big accomplishment, but the creation of the faculty practice had been a goal of our school long before I arrived — really for over 30 years.

What do you think is special about the VCU School of Nursing? What exists here that doesn’t in other nursing programs?
There is a genuine commitment to the VCU School of Nursing values among our faculty and staff.  There is a deep respect among faculty and staff and we see this every day. It is at the heart of our culture and plays into our organizational effectiveness. This aspect is one of the things that sets our school apart from others and one of the best ways to recruit and retain talented faculty and staff. 

What’s next for the School of Nursing?
Our school has truly advanced to the “next level” and is evident in our classrooms, practice, research and community outreach. We will remain committed to these areas as we roll out new curricula in the upcoming years, in alignment with the new nursing education standards outlined by the American Association of College of Nursing. We will also further enhance our alignment with nursing leaders at VCU Health as we advance common goals to improve the health of our communities and deliver quality patient care.