At a Sigma Theta Tau induction ceremony in 1994, Deborah Morrill and her fellow inductees were charged by their nursing faculty to do great things, and to never disappoint in the professional field of health care. Morrill took those words to heart, and strove to further her education in health care. Not just to be on the front lines as a bedside nurse, but to inspire and educate the next generations of nurses and doctors.
“While I am changing the direction of my career, I’ve always wanted to do research, and be that person up there sharing my knowledge,” said Morrill.
Almost 30 years after that induction ceremony, Morrill, 52, took the stage at Jess Dow Field on May 19 to accept her doctorate in nursing education as part of the commencement exercises for the College of Health and Human Services. It was her third time receiving a nursing degree over the span of almost four decades and the third time she has participated in commencement exercises on campus.
Morrill began her undergraduate studies at Southern as a commuter student in 1986. She graduated in 1990 with a B.S. in public health and then earned a BSN in nursing in 1994. Back then, former SCSU President Michael J. Adanti awarded her degrees, and commencement ceremonies were held in front of Buley Library.
“It was very different, I was a kid back then,” said Morrill. “For me, it was about finishing and being in the moment. Coming back as an adult who is working in academia now, knowing who all those figures are, understanding the relationship and why they are speaking to us, it definitely had a different vibe.”
A native of Hamden but currently living in Wallingford with her family, Morrill has established a lengthy and professional career. She has spent 23 years as a bedside nurse, working in institutions such as Yale New Haven and Saint Raphael’s hospitals. More recently, she held numerous adjunct faculty positions, including as a lab instructor at Southern.
The experience in the classroom, as both a student and instructor, was the inspiration for Morrill to complete her doctorate.
“There was a time where I was sitting in an auditorium, listening to a professor talking about nursing theory of all things, which was new in those days,” she said. “And I said boy, to be an expert enough to be on the stage and talking to all these students, to feel like you knew enough that you could be up there sharing your knowledge, boy wouldn’t that be awesome.”
Commencements of years past have been held on campus, at the former Connecticut Tennis Center, and at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local guidelines this year required outdoor ceremonies.
Yet through her mask, Morrill’s smiling eyes were contagious as President Joe Bertolino and Sandra Bulmer, dean of the College of Health and Human Services, presented her doctorate. In the crowd, Morrill’s husband Kevin and daughter Jessica were watching, along with her sons Brendan and Jason from home.
One of the most rewarding parts of completing her doctorate, Morrill said, was the help of those who fostered her education during her undergraduate days, including her advisor and then clinical instructor Dr. Susan Westrick, professor of nursing.
“It was really a pleasure to see her come into our Ed.D program as a doctoral student,” said Westrick. “We always love to have our students who started in our BSN program advance through their career.”
Westrick helped Morrill formulate a 172-page doctoral thesis, which focused on the correlation between academic honesty and integrity in a career in nursing and health care. It was the first time Westrick advised a doctoral candidate who had earlier begun as an undergraduate.
“She wanted to make sure [her] students made the connection between the decisions they made as students and their extended professional roles,” said Westrick. During teaching interventions, Westrick recalls one of Morrill’s classes ending with “uproarious” applause from her students.
“I really felt like I’m an alumna now,” said Morrill. “I felt so much more connected with this last degree, and you can see the benefit that you get over a lifetime of working.”