For Dr. Mary Ann Laufer, Teaching Mental Health Nursing and Leadership is a “Perfect Next Step”
Ask Dr. Mary Ann Laufer what she likes most about mental health nursing and her answer is both direct and heartfelt.
“Mental health nursing offers nurses the privilege of serving people who the general public often crosses the street to avoid,” says Mary Ann, who currently teaches two classes—Mental Health and Leadership—at San Joaquin Valley College’s Visalia campus. “Some nurses feel at home in the operating room or delivery room or emergency room. I knew quite early in my career that my calling was mental health nursing. It’s where I fit.”
Mary Ann joined the SJVC faculty in 2022 after a successful 36-year nursing career that has included stints as a clinical nurse, nurse manager, program director, clinical educator, Director of Nursing, Director of Mental Health Services, and Director of Clinical Practice and Education.
“Teaching at SJVC has been a perfect next step in my career,” says Mary Ann. “Every professional experience I’ve had over the years shows up in my classroom in one way or another. I’m loving the opportunity to share what I’ve learned along the way with a new generation of nurses.”
We asked Mary Ann about her interest in mental health nursing, the characteristics she believes good nurses possess, the impact that her commitment to lifelong learning has had on her career, and what she’s enjoying most about teaching at SJVC.
What attracted you to a career in healthcare?
It actually took me a while to find my passion. When I graduated high school, I wanted to be a teacher, but at the time teachers were being laid off. I then decided to become a computer engineer. There was only one problem: not long after I started down that path, I realized I didn’t like it.
I was raised by a nurse. My mom was—and still is—a great role model. She had six kids and two of us are nurses, one is an x-ray technician, and another creates medical resource books. I remember listening to my mom’s work stories at the kitchen table, and I could sense how much what she did mattered to her. I took her advice and decided to become a Certified Nurse Assistant before committing to nursing school. Once I knew I shared her love of nursing, I enrolled at California State University-Long Beach. I graduated with my B.S. in nursing and have never regretted it.
How did you end up specializing in mental health nursing?
Early in my education, I took a mental health theory class and loved it. No matter what field of medicine you work in, a patient’s mental health and wellness plays an important factor. Nurses may not choose to work in the mental health arena, but the skills they’ll learn and develop in mental health education will serve them well in whatever specialty they choose. I gravitated to mental health nursing because it was a field in which I knew that what I did could really matter in the lives of my patients and those who love them.
You’re a great example of the power of lifelong learning. How has your commitment to advanced education helped shape your career?
When I started nursing school back in the mid-1980’s, I didn’t necessarily envision myself going on to earn a masters and a doctorate—especially while working full time and raising my daughter. But that’s what happened. I completed my Master of Science degree in 2007 and my Doctor of Nursing Practice in 2015. I’m grateful I did, because many of the advances I’ve experienced in my career would have been impossible if I hadn’t embraced the notion of being a lifelong learner.
What qualities or personal characteristics do you think good nurses possess?
The best nurses I’ve known are intuitive and have a great sense of empathy. They connect well with other people and have an ability to understand what another person is going through and how they’re likely to be feeling in a given situation. To me, it’s a critical asset. Great nurses are also flexible and able to work well as part of a team, often with people who may have very different personalities and levels of experience. They’re able to communicate clearly, and they’re good team members. They also possess an ability to filter out noise and they’re comfortable in chaos. That’s essential, because no matter what field of nursing you choose, there will be times of chaos.
What do you like most about teaching?
I love the enthusiasm my students have for learning and for their future profession. I’m currently teaching 35 students and mentoring 14. Every day is different and every day is challenging. Energy feeds off energy, and I really love engaging with my students. At the beginning of a class, I try to read the room and assess how I can best connect with them. Each student brings their own unique perspective and experiences. Classes can be powerful when you’re teaching mental health nursing. Some of the material and subject matter we cover can be distressing or even triggering for some people, depending on their family background or personal history.
Being able to teach and mentor students to become capable, empathetic nurses is a privilege, and it’s really gratifying when students tell me that they’ve been able to apply something they’ve learned in class to help make a positive difference in the life of someone they care about.
If you knew someone who was considering enrolling in SJVC’s Registered Nursing program, what would you tell them?
That depends. If they’re not certain that nursing is a field they’ll love, I’d encourage them to first become Certified Nursing Assistants like I did. That way, they can get some direct experience in patient care and be sure it’s something they want to do before committing to nursing school.
Nursing is a wonderful profession, and I feel the demand for nurses will continue to be strong. There was a nurse shortage when I graduated 36 years ago, and there still is! In nursing, if you think it, you can do it. You can move around. You can shift among specialties. You can work at the bedside, providing direct patient care, or you can move into management and leadership. There are so many options and opportunities.
If nursing is something a person feels passionate about pursuing, I would encourage them to reach out and talk with our team at SJVC. This is a unique and special place, and I’ve been consistently impressed by our faculty and their commitment to our students and their success. It’s an essential part of the culture here—and it works!
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