“I lived in 26 different places by the time I was 19. When I was 21, Hawai‘i was the first place I ever moved to on my own, and I decided I was done moving,” says University of Hawai‘i graduate Jennifer Nill (ADN Maui; BSN, DNP Hilo). “Hawai‘i welcomed me with open arms and I’ve never felt so at home anywhere, or so accepted anywhere, and it has been 15 years now. I feel really fortunate to have been taken in by the islands and its people.”
In her 20s, Jennifer was unsure about her future, changing majors a few times. “The UH college system was there for me throughout my journey,” she explains. “I was able to explore and try a few things out. College isn’t cheap by any means, but UH is definitely an affordable option compared to other places.”
Now a board-certified nurse practitioner with Lyons Care Associates on Maui, Jennifer is an avid lover of the outdoors, a canoe paddler, a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and a proud alumna.
How did you decide on nursing as a field of study?
My whole life, I really enjoyed helping other people. My first job at age 14 was as a health aide. I helped cancer patients, I made their beds, helped people bathe and go to the bathroom, checked vital signs; really important things in a patient’s life, especially in their health journey.
I’ve had other jobs since then, including working in a daycare, in an emergency room as a scribe, and in the service industry. I finally settled on nursing and healthcare. My mom was always a very healthy person, and she inspired me to be healthy and to make healthy choices. Healthcare was such a great fit for me, and it took a great while for me to accept that. It was put into my path a few times and I tried to hide from it, and eventually I agreed, and I’m so glad I did.
I’ve always liked being around people and helping people. I’m committed to making the world a better place, which is a huge job and it’s overwhelming, really, but if we just ask, “What are we passionate about, and what can we try to do to help?” that will make an impact.
The more people who do this the better, and I love to try to help inspire other people to do something for the planet. One of my passions is children, and that’s why I’ve been with Big Brothers Big Sisters for ten years. Another effort I'm passionate about is the environment, and that’s why I do a lot of beach cleanups.
I also spend a lot of time in the summer helping with the Maui County Hawaiian Canoe Association. It’s such a wonderful thing to be outdoors and with kids. If you’ve ever been around paddling, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s just an incredible, family-oriented, wonderful thing, combining two of my favorite passions: children and the outdoors.
What was your college journey like?
I was trying to get into college on O‘ahu, but it was flooded with applicants, so I applied to Maui and got in. I moved over right away and was able to go to college on Maui for nursing, and absolutely fell in love with the field. This is what I was made for. I love it.
My first job as an LPN was with Dr. S. Dwight Lyons, a general surgeon. He was getting big into helping cancer patients, and I worked with him for just a short period.
I went to work in the hospital, continuing work on my bachelor’s, and I knew I wanted to work as a nurse practitioner, but no time soon. But life had different plans for me. The Doctor of Nursing Practice at UH Hilo came across my desk, and it was too good to be true. The way my life was lining up, it made sense to go right then rather than put it off.
I was able to complete all my clinical hours with physicians and nurse practitioners on Maui, in Hilo, and on Lana‘i, and that’s an incredible thing, because you have to find people willing to precept you and mentor you for no compensation. For three years, I found people who were willing to take me under their wings and show me the way. That was a really humbling and wonderful experience, and heartening too, to think about all the people willing to help.
I became a nurse practitioner, and did my doctoral project at a small, long-term care facility on Maui. I had a project whose goal was to educate the staff on the most current guidelines for preventing catheter-associated urinary tract infection, creating a standardized protocol and education program. We trained the entire staff, and the program was successful, and it decreased their number of infections. It was very rewarding, and I defended the project a few hours before I went to the hospital to give birth to my daughter, my first child.
You have to be passionate about something and care about it. If I didn’t care about nursing, it never would have happened. I’ve been fortunate to have people along the way who saw something in me, who wanted to invest in me. Of course I couldn’t have done any of it without the love and support of my friends and family, most of all my husband William. He is my rock and I’d be lost without him.
I'm now working with Dr. Lyons again in his new surgery practice which has a very strong emphasis on cancer, survivorship, and lifestyle modification. Everything I do in my work is evidence-based, and the science is really going toward lifestyle, intervention, and preventing disease. This is so exciting for me as a person who loves to encourage people to eat healthy, and to get up and move. It's satisfying to be able to do so with the ability to back up the recommendation with extremely specific science.
How would you describe UH Maui College in one word?
It’s really incredible! Maui College in one word is “small.” This is absolutely a compliment. There’s so much that comes with it: individual attention, and people who know your name. It’s really a wonderful, incredible experience with people who really care about what they’re doing.
Who was your favorite instructor?
Marge Kelm, a nursing instructor at UH Maui College, is such a beautiful, wonderful light of a human being. She truly cares about people, she’s gentle and loving, and everything she does is with love and kindness and she’s just an inspiration. It’s obvious why Marge is in healthcare: she’s made for it. She’s a wonderful, kind person who wants to help people.
What would you like others to know about UH?
I have the highest praise for all things UH, and I feel so lucky that UH was there for me. Through UH I was educated and I bettered myself, and now, hopefully, I have the opportunity to have an impact on an entire group of people in a small island community who are struggling with the most difficult thing in their lives, which is cancer. Now I’m able to help guide them with a team of multidisciplinary care professionals, and it all started with UH. I got to stay home in the islands, to be with my family, to build my life here, and I'm able to keep building my life here. I have the best things to say about the University of Hawai‘i.