From Poverty to Prosperity: Nursing Grad to Deliver Commencement Speech

chisa-huffman-214x300Chisa Huffman was six years old when she fell in love with nursing after a traumatic domestic violence incident sent her mother to the hospital.

“The nurse was so good with my mom and comforted me,” said Huffman. “She knew what I wanted without me saying anything. She brought me crayons and paper and let me color. I fell in love with her and thought she was an angel.”

On December 8, Huffman will share her story as the commencement speaker at UT’s graduate hooding ceremony at 7 p.m. in Thompson-Boling Arena.

The first-generation student will share her six-year journey from certified nursing assistant to master’s degree in nursing, which she carried out while working full time and caring for her family.

Huffman grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, in a family that struggled to put food on the table. Yet she graduated from high school with honors in 1999.

“I was never taught about what comes after high school or how to make the transition to college,” said Huffman. “I got a job right after high school with a health insurance company. It was the closest thing I could get to being a nurse, but I knew I could work my way up in life and become one.”

Huffman continued to live with her mom, helped pay the bills, and took college classes one at a time when she could afford them. But in 2008, she met Edward Huffman, a native of Maryville, Tennessee, and UT Chattanooga graduate. The couple married in 2009 and live in Maryville.

“He kept asking me what I wanted to do with my life,” said Huffman. “I told him I wanted to be a nurse and he encouraged me to follow my dream.”

In 2010, Huffman enrolled in classes at the local American Red Cross chapter and became licensed as a certified nursing assistant. She was voted most outstanding student by her peers.

She then enrolled in Blount Memorial Hospital’s diploma program to become a licensed practicing nurse (LPN).

Chisa Huffman, UT nursing graduate, with her son, EJ, and husband, Edward.

Chisa Huffman, UT nursing graduate, with her son, EJ, and husband, Edward.

On September 22, 2011, she was slated to deliver the commencement speech as she was elected class president by her peers, but encountered another kind of delivery—the birth of her first child, a son, at 2:50 a.m.

“I couldn’t attend the ceremony so I gave my speech from a speakerphone while lying in my hospital bed,” said Huffman.

Just two weeks later, the new mom took and passed her LPN boards. She got a job in the hospice unit at UT Medical Center.

“I was around all those RNs at UT Medical Center and wanted to be just like them,” said Huffman. “So at 30 years old, I enrolled in Pellissippi State’s first LPN to RN bridge program and took classes at their Friendsville campus in Blount County.”

During this time, her husband’s mother and father passed away and the couple became responsible for his grandmother. Huffman took time off from school and work to take care of her.

“She moved in with us and I became her caregiver,” said Huffman. “She was like my very own patient and I learned so much from her. She supported me every step of the way in my nursing journey and has been my guiding force. She passed away in April of this year, but she’s always with me, inspiring me to keep going.”

Huffman earned her associate’s degree in nursing in May 2014, and once again she graduated with honors. In June 2014, she took her national licensing exam and passed.

Huffman went to work as an RN on the specialty surgical unit at Blount Memorial Hospital and quickly moved up to charge nurse. In July 2015, UT’s College of Nursing recruited her for their RN to BSN program.

In May 2015 Huffman graduated with her bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), summa cum laude. It was Pamela Hardesty, a clinical associate professor of nursing and coordinator of the master’s program, who encouraged her to go to graduate school.

“I met Dr. Hardesty in my nursing leadership class and remember looking at her and wanting to be like her and learn how to motivate people like she does,” said Huffman.

Huffman enrolled in graduate school in the fall of 2015. This Thursday, she will receive her Master of Science in nursing with a nursing administration concentration, and a minor in nursing education.

“Chisa is not only a terrific student but a terrific person,” said Hardesty. “She has an inner drive, hardiness, an accurate sense of self, and a thirst for learning that will help her be successful in future nursing leadership roles. Our profession not only faces a shortage of nurses, but we also face a shortage of qualified nurse leaders. We need nurses of her caliber to enter into nursing leadership roles. Chisa represents the future of our profession, and it’s been an honor to work with her in our program.”

This fall Huffman was selected to become the first-ever nurse executive leadership resident with the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), an organization that represents more than 250 hospitals as well as freestanding surgery centers in the United States and United Kingdom. She will work with the corporation’s senior nurse executives during the next two years to build a residency program to help develop and train the next generation of HCA nurse leaders.

She also will begin UT’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program next fall and hopes to earn her doctorate in May 2019.

Although busy with her studies, Huffman finds time to serve as a mentor for tnAchieves, which helps students transition from high school to college, and Amachi, an organization that serves children whose parents are incarcerated.

“I try to get out there as much as I can because I want people to hear my story,” said Huffman. “I want to inspire others and let them know there’s hope and financial help if you want to go to college. Most importantly, I want people to know and attain their true potential.”

Cheering Huffman on at the ceremony will be her mother; husband; five-year-old son, EJ; and older brother, a U.S. naval officer.

“I’ve loved being at UT,” said Huffman. “I’m a small-town person so I thought I’d just be one of many, but everyone knows my name and is so welcoming to me. You’re not a number at UT. You’re a name. You’re a person. I’ve had support surrounding me the whole time I’ve been here. I’d love to eventually come back and become a professor in UT’s College of Nursing.”

CONTACT:

Tyra Haag (865-974-5460, tyra.haag@tennessee.edu)