The “broader impact,” the “lasting effect”: these are the goals of a woman reared in a tradition of service. An adopted child, she grew up in San Diego in a military family that valued hard work, education, and helping others. And even though neither of her parents finished college, they supported her decision to enter a “two-plus-two” nursing program at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, in the 1980s.
She went through a bit of culture shock there. As an Asian American, she didn’t look like most of her patients; as a Californian, she didn’t sound like them, either. There were times it became clear that her patients had no idea what she was saying: “I would overhear somebody say to another, ‘Is she speaking English? Can you tell?’” Dr. Wenzel said that it taught a lesson that has served her well as a teacher and a researcher: in order to be understood, you have to listen.
She earned an associate’s degree after two years and went on to complete the bachelor’s in two more years while working as a staff nurse in endocrinology at a Chattanooga hospital, supporting not only her own education but also her sister’s. “There had always been this idea that it’s important to give back, that society doesn’t necessarily owe you anything,” Dr. Wenzel said of her family’s values.
After completing her bachelor’s, she taught a clinical course at a Chattanooga community college. She enjoyed it but felt more drawn to clinical practice and worked as a case manager at a Georgia facility. Her first real immersion in education came at the University of Virginia, where as a doctoral student she was asked to teach a clinical group on inpatient oncology. Other offers soon followed, and she discovered that nurses with advanced degrees always have options.
I challenged a tradition by starting my PhD at a fairly young age. With the critical shortage of faculty, we cannot afford to lose candidates for faculty positions. We probably need them sooner than we can get them.
—Jennifer Wenzel, PhD, RN, CCM, assistant professor of nursing, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
That’s the message she’s getting as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholar, as well. The national program aids junior nursing faculty in becoming academic leaders, skilled teachers, and productive scholars. And it’s what she tries to impart to her students, too. She tells them: “‘I know that many of you have the ability to [get a doctorate] if you want to do it. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.’” That sort of determination continues to fuel her career. “It’s a real pleasure to see people who are starting out doing something that you love,” said Dr. Wenzel. “Seeing their excitement about it reenergizes you and helps to remind you what drew you to the profession.”