On the wall of Mary Sue Howlett’s office hangs a framed letter she wrote at eight years old. It reads, ‘My full name is …, My friends call me …, When I grow up I want to be a nurse.’ She kept that promise to herself, devoting her lifework to nursing. She earned a BS in Nursing from UVM in 1984 and M.S. Family Nurse Practitioner in 2010 from University of Massachusetts Boston. She's now pursuing a Ph.D. in Nursing at University of Massachusetts Boston, with a focus on Health Policy.
Mary Sue's daughter, Abigail Howlett, graduated from UVM with a B.S. in nursing in 2017. Abigail’s career passion came not from observing her mother’s nursing profession, but from sharing her experience as a patient.
Abigail explained, “My mother was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when I was in high school, and it was her chemo nurse who made everything feel alright. She made my mom feel calm, and comfortable with each treatment. Seeing my mom come home feeling good about what was going on made me feel calm. I chose to study nursing after seeing how much of a positive influence a nurse can have on a family.” Mary Sue responded well to treatment and returned to full activity.
Mary Sue’s Path
“I always wanted to be a nurse. It was an innate something in me, and I’ve never regretted the decision. I’ve loved every minute of it,” said Mary Sue. “I have had a lot of different positions in nursing and loved every one for different reasons.”
Her diverse career includes roles as a practicing nurse, nurse educator and policy analyst. She worked in hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units and trained nurses, police officers and rape crisis counselors for the Massachusetts Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program. She now serves as an Associate Director for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, examining state policies and proposed legislation for their impacts on patient care and nursing. She also cares for patients as a family nurse practitioner in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and teaches an undergraduate health assessment course at University of Massachusetts Boston.
She chose to attend UVM for its strong nursing program and beautiful location.
“It’s gorgeous! Set between the mountains and Lake Champlain, it is a perfect setting. I still get a sense of inner peace when I drive up I-89,” she said. “The UVM Nursing program has always been considered a great program and I was happy to be accepted. When I stepped onto the UVM green I knew it was the right place for me.”
She fondly recalled her practicum placements at UVM doing community nursing in Colchester. “I remember driving on the back roads of Vermont, walking into peoples’ homes to do their assessments. The patients allowed me to learn from them.”
She appreciated UVM's atmosphere of inclusivity. “Students of varied backgrounds, styles, and interests coexist with mutual respect for each other. Students were encouraged to be themselves, encouraged to grow personally and professionally and learn from each other,” she said. “During Abigail’s time at UVM, I was confident that had not changed.”
As she pursues her Ph.D., Mary Sue's research focuses on the racial homogeneity of the nursing workforce its influence on turnover among nurses of color.
“Nursing has evolved, and I think that we need to evolve with it,” she said. “I teach my students to be flexible. We need to be.”
Abigail, known to her mother’s colleagues as Mary Sue’s ‘mini me,’ hesitated to follow in Mary Sue’s footsteps, but she felt drawn to UVM.
“Knowing that my mom went to UVM for nursing, I knew it was a strong program. I could not help but fall in love with the gorgeous campus and welcoming atmosphere of the college. It just felt right,” she said.
Participating in UVM clubs was a highlight of Abigail’s college experience. She became very involved in the Student Nurses Association (SNA), serving as secretary, treasurer and president.
“SNA was a very big part of my UVM experience. One of my favorite things to do with SNA was cook dinner at the Ronald McDonald House, which provides a place to stay with home-cooked meals to parents of children who are in the medical center.” SNA members also provided an opportunity to work closely with nursing faculty and attend the National Student Nurses Association annual convention. “This convention provided the chance to expand my knowledge outside UVM, and learn from experienced professionals,” she recalled.
Abigail served as a CNHS Link for three years, providing peer mentorship to first-year CNHS students. “I showed them where classes were and was a peer resource and mentor. We hosted pasta dinners, movie nights and walks downtown to help first year students to make connections with other members of their class, find the best way to get somewhere and give study advice,” Abigail explained. “It was a lot of fun.”
At the pinning ceremony the day before Abigail’s graduation, Mary Sue proudly presented her daughter with her own pin from 1984. “I was more than thrilled when she chose UVM and so proud of her at graduation,” raved Mary Sue. “I hope she loves nursing as much as I have.”
Abigail passed the RN licensure exam last July, and currently works at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, MA on their inpatient oncology unit. “I have been learning a lot, and it has been an amazing experience so far,” she said. “In the future, I would like to pursue pediatric oncology.”