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Brenda Peterson

Brenda Petersen never wanted to pursue a nursing career, even though her mother was a nurse.

“I heard the stories and I thought, ‘I could never do that.’” She started college studying business and then entered the professional workforce as a special deputy sheriff in the Hunterdon County Sheriff’s Office and was certified as a sex crimes investigator. She left the county and went to work for an engineering firm and then for a Fortune 500 company in cost accounting.

But everything changed after she had her first baby. Hospitalized for a month on complete bed rest and unable to care for her infant son, Petersen saw the compassion of the nurses and realized she wanted to pursue a dream of “being just like them.”

“It wasn’t the doctors; it wasn’t the medicine that made the biggest difference in my healing and recovery; it was the caring of those nurses who came to my bedside at one of the worst times of my life,” she said.

Her journey to become a nurse began a few years later. “When my kids went to school, I went to school. And I’ve been in school ever since,” Petersen said. She is completing her Ph.D. in Health Sciences Leadership at Seton Hall University’s School of Health and Medical Sciences, and expects to defend her dissertation this fall.

Her nursing studies began in an associate degree program because that was what she could afford. After receiving her degree, she worked in home care and then quickly enrolled in Seton Hall’s R.N. to B.S.N. program.

During her studies, Petersen met a pediatric nurse practitioner/nurse educator who would become her mentor. “She touched me and inspired me to want to go on for my graduate degree, so I pursued the same path she had.” That path would lead Petersen to become a pediatric nurse practitioner and then a nurse educator. She spent a decade on the nursing faculty and as a program administrator at Seton Hall and joined Caldwell in 2013.

In addition to her role as assistant director in the Department of Nursing, she was recently named director of Caldwell’s new Department of Public Health , which will feature a B.S. in public health education.

She takes seriously the responsibility that comes with educating students in a changing health care environment. “I’m very passionate about supporting student success, not just academically but emotionally.”

Success in nursing education means constantly keeping pace with industry changes especially since professional standards have been raised over the last several years. In 2013 the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses became more difficult because preventable patient injury is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, Petersen explained. From day one on the job, she joined the nursing team to research evidence on best teaching practices, and the team is seeing results. She boasted of recent grads who have passed the exams and are all employed, several in jobs that are not standard for the new nurse. Employers are impressed by the way Caldwell’s nursing students represent themselves in their field work, Petersen stressed. “We teach with great passion, great hope and great expectation that the words we use and the lessons we provide will impact our students to have practices that reflect who we are as an institution.”

One of the field work settings is the Dedicated Education Unit at Morristown Medical Center where Caldwell has partnered for the past two years. “They were very vocal in the fact that they chose us because of our faculty, in particular Dr. Marnie Sperling,” said Petersen. Unlike a traditional student/faculty model, the DEU model provides a “practicing expert nurse” who works directly with the student to manage patient care, which is the type of work the student will do after entering the workforce, she said. Since statistics show that a large number of new nurses leave the profession in the first six months of being on the job, gaining this type of experience can counter that trend and benefit the employer by reducing orientation costs, she explained.

Petersen and her husband John have been married for 37 years and have three grown children, Tyler, Victoria and Erik. On weekends she enjoys reading anything related to education or best practices for educating nurses. “I’m at a great time in my life; I’m passionate about seeing Caldwell grow and our department expand and grow.” She also gives back by serving on the board of the New Jersey Physicians Advisory Group, which provides up-to-date medical information on teen sexual health to educators, parents and health professionals.

Word is spreading about what she called the “brand” of Caldwell nursing graduates, a brand that includes core values as well
as skills and ability, she explained. “It’s with great humility I do my best to try to give them examples of what that really means.”  n

— CL

“ I’m very passionate about supporting student success, not just academically but emotionalls.”

Brenda Peterson with her Students

She and her husband John met in high school when she was 15, and they’ve been together ever since. “He is my rock, my touchstone, my ‘true north,’” she said.

Her father, Norman Berner, was a World War II veteran, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division who jumped into Normandy on D-Day. He was named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest arborist. “I don’t think anyone is going to beat him, because he was 86 when he was recognized,” said Petersen.

Her mother, Alice Emfinger Berner, a nurse with an associate degree, was one of the first physician assistants in New Jersey. “That was the early stages of nurse practitioners and physician assistants, so she sat for the exam, passed it and became licensed as a physician assistant before it was full regulated. She was a trailblazer,” said Petersen.