UWGB nursing faculty ignited passion in Prof. Sharon Gajeski

UW-Green Bay nursing students Ashlyn Gerber (left) and Emily Bushnell stand with Sharon Gajeski (far right), RN, MSN, assistant teaching professor, in the Aurora BayCare Nursing Skills Center. Gajeski is a UW-Green Bay alumna of the BSN Completion Program, and will retire in May 2024 after 16 years with UW-Green Bay’s Nursing and Health Studies department.

Sylvia “Mimi” Kubsch, Lorraine Noll and Harriet Wichowski were mentors to many nursing students, including an ambitious Sharon Gajeski who came to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in the 1980s for its newly launched BSN Completion Program.

Kubsch, Noll and Wichowski were trail blazers as the passionate faculty who created the completion program when there was no other like it in the state.

Gajeski would eventually become colleagues with her mentors, and now, is preparing to retire from UW-Green Bay as a member of the nursing faculty who launched the newest nursing degree program, a traditional, four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

“It’s just exciting, thinking back to 2018 when we started planning those first classes, and then in 2021, teaching during the (Covid-19) pandemic, and to see the first class graduate,” says Gajeski, RN, MSN and assistant teaching professor. “I’m grateful I was here during this time and had the opportunity to be part of something so successful for the University, and for the area to have another nursing program.”

Kubsch, Noll and Wichowski’s energy and commitment to teaching lit a fire in Gajeski, who soon set herself on a path to becoming an educator, too.

“I always, always had a love for learning and education,” she says. “I enjoy seeing that light bulb moment in students — seeing their growth in a clinical setting from that very first time when they’re nervous and are asking me to come into (the patient’s) room with them, and being able to guide them through that. I love sharing that experience. We’ve all been there.”

Ruth Pearson is a nursing advisor at UW-Green Bay.

Nursing advisor Ruth Pearson describes Gajeski as passionate and dedicated to students. “Sharon has impacted each nursing program offered at UW-Green Bay — most noteworthy is her involvement with BSN, both in development and teaching. She truly embraces our mission — together we inspire students and transform communities.”
A Green Bay native, Gajeski enrolled at Bellin College in 1980. She completed her general education classes at UW-Green Bay to complete an associate degree in nursing (ADN) and nursing courses at Bellin. As she began her first nursing job in orthopedics and neurology for Bellin Hospital, she also started classes in the BSN Completion Program at UW-Green Bay.

Like many young nurses, even today, Gajeski worked at the hospital nights and weekends and took classes part-time. “The great thing about that program is that (the faculty) helped us apply the learning right while we were working. Tying that all together made it so real — they helped us realize the difference it could make in our careers and our practice,” says Gajeski.

While working as a staff nurse at Bellin, Gajeski became a clinical educator and precepted student nurses. That’s when she fell in love with teaching. Gajeski completed a Master’s of Science in Nursing, education emphasis, at UW-Oshkosh. This led to a teaching position at Bellin College — her first experience working as a colleague alongside faculty who had been her teachers.

Experiences working on quality improvement projects at the hospital led to more opportunities, including achieving certification for quality improvement and presenting her research of medication errors at a national conference.

In 2007, Gajeski returned — again — to UW-Green Bay, this time as a nursing advisor before shifting to her current role as assistant teaching professor.

“It has been a highlight of my career to be a part of the (BSN) curriculum design and new program launch. This was from the ground up,” she says. “Right now, we’re watching as the first class takes their licensing tests and we get as excited as they do when they share the news that they passed.

“I feel blessed that I have had the opportunity to cross paths with so many students and nurses over the years.”

BSN alumna Esther Nalukwago’s dreams grow bigger from Uganda to UW-Green Bay

Esther Nalukwago, RN, stands in front of the statue of St. Anthony of Padua on the eighth floor of HSHS St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay.

From more than 7,700 miles away, Esther Nalukwago envisioned her future as a Phoenix. It was a bold move that no one in her family had ever done before. She was going to college. She had done well in school, and she was ready.

She left her home in Uganda in 2018 and arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay dressed for summer in wintry December. The change in weather was startling. But it was minor compared to the changes that Nalukwago would experience over the next four years.

On May 13, 2023, she became a member of the first graduating class of UW-Green Bay’s traditional, four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program. She works as a registered nurse in the surgical unit at HSHS St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay, and now envisions a new future: operating a health clinic utilizing American medical practices back home in Uganda.

“My ultimate hope is to open my own clinic and have it set up like American style and practices,” she says. “Basically, how (Americans) treat patients, they prioritize the patients, whereas back home, it’s not the case.”

When Nalukwago was very young, her father passed away. A family from Green Bay chose to support her and her brother and made it possible for the siblings to remain with their mother in Uganda. When offered the opportunity to attend college and live with her host family in Green Bay, she took the leap with the intent to return home after graduation.

She enrolled and earned a seat in the BSN program.

“Halfway through, I kind of started to question if I was supposed to be in the program. Things got harder as we advanced,” she says.

Esther Nalukwago, RN, works from the nurses station on the eighth floor of HSHS St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay.

It’s not uncommon, says Sharon Gajeski, RN, MSN, assistant teaching professor, for nursing students to struggle with the demands of course work and clinical rotations during their junior and senior years.
“I’m so impressed especially with students who speak English as their second language and come from different cultures. I’m amazed, especially by Esther. I loved seeing the growth over the course of the program.”

Nalukwago says nursing faculty like Gajeski, helped motivate her.

“The teachers were great. They knew exactly what they were talking about because they had the experience as nurses. For me, it created more trust in them,” she says.

“I thought about my country and how badly we need health care workers. I knew at some point, I’m going to have to move back and I want to set myself up for job security.”

She persevered, but even at the pinning ceremony just before graduation, Nalukwago did not feel relief. The state licensure exam was still a few months away. “I did not feel accomplished. I still knew that I needed to study to get my license. I still felt pressure after graduation.”

Nalukwago passed the exam in late July. She had already started her fulltime job at in the surgical unit at St. Vincent’s Hospital. It’s a job she enjoys and intends to stay for a few more years before returning home. She likes the variety of care she provides.

“You could have a patient from a motorcycle accident; you could have another with a GI issue; you could have a hip fracture — you could have six people with six different issues. It can be challenging, and I like it a lot,” she says.

For now, Nalukwago’s staying put in Green Bay to work on her nursing skills.

“I feel like I’ve gained a lot of relationships and I’ve made friends from all over. I have gained a lot of attachment to (my adoptive) family, and it’s hard for me to think about leaving,” she says.

Building for Tomorrow, news from Dean Susan Gallagher Lepak

Dear friends and alumni,

“A strong healthcare system is the foundation of our communities’ well-being and it’s also the foundation of a healthy economy.” — Secretary Amy Pechacek, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development

Susan Gallagher-Lepak is Dean of the College of Health, Education and Social Welfare.

I agree with Secretary Pechacek! It’s for these reasons that we built the prelicensure nursing program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and are working to grow nursing and health studies offerings and enrollment.

Our first cohort of prelicensure nursing students graduated in May 2023 and were quickly hired to fill open nursing positions. Most were hired by our local healthcare organizations. These new nurses were vitally needed in our nursing workforce. In fact, healthcare systems are asking us if we can prepare even more nurses.


Make a difference. Help with one of these needs:

  • Sponsorship of a nursing skills lab simulation station, $10,000 (6 stations)
  • Sponsorship of nursing health assessment stations, $20,000 (8 stations)

Gifts can be recognized with a wall-mounted plaque, or be made anonymously. Use the enclosed envelope or go to www.uwgb.edu/foundation. Thank you!

I am pleased to share that UW-Green Bay recently received a $150,000 grant from the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. This matching gift will help to expand the number of students admitted to the prelicensure program. We are appreciative of this generous gift and are up to the challenge of raising the remaining $150,000 match.

This is important help and recognition on the heels of receiving a Wisconsin Workforce Innovation Grant to build teaching capacity and the final year of the prelicensure nursing. Launched in 2022, the pilot project has been effective in engaging our healthcare partners in a new way. We have had outstanding feedback from our partners, including Aurora BayCare Medical Center, HSHS St. Vincent Hospital and Bellin Health.

Jenna Liphart-Rhoads, RN, PhD, assistant professor,  has prepared 10 nurses employed at our partner organizations to serve as co-clinical instructors to teach clinical groups of nursing students.

We continue to think big and address community needs with innovative solutions. Thank you for your support of UW-Green Bay nursing.

Dean Susan Gallagher-Lepak, RN, PhD
College of Health, Education and Social Welfare
Contact: 920-465-2034; gallaghs@uwgb.edu

Nursing & Health Chair’s Report, Fall 2023


Christine Vandenhouten is Director of Nursing Programs at UW-Green Bay.

We are excited to share the successes of the first class of prelicensure Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) graduates, who participated in the University’s first pinning ceremony and graduation in May.

Many employers have a strong preference for nurses to be BSN prepared. The prelicensure program helps ensure a well-prepared nursing workforce.

We also saw a large number of BSN Completion Program graduates graduate in May. Like many alumni before them, completing the BSN Completion Program provides greater opportunities for career and educational mobility.

2023 traditional BSN graduate data 

93%: NCLEX-RN pass rate

77%: Employed in health care in Green Bay

88%: Employed in health care in Wisconsin

Sampling of post-graduation roles: medical/surgical, intensive care, emergency department, behavioral health

Many health fields continue to grow — our programs include Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Health Information Management and Technology Program (BS HIMT), Health and Wellness Management (MS HWM), and the newest program, Community Health Education (BS CHE).

We couldn’t be more proud of all of our graduates who are contributing to positive health outcomes.

Christine Vandenhouten, Director of Nursing Programs and Chair of Nursing and Health Studies Department

View print version of Nursing Newsletter

View the print version of the Fall 2023 Nursing Newsletter

Rising Outcomes, Fall 2023 includes:

Lieutenant Governor Visits UW-Green Bay’s Nursing Program

Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez joined Secretary-designee of the Department of Wisconsin Workforce Amy Pechacek and State Rep. Kristina Shelton for a campus visit on Monday, Feb. 6 to talk about nursing. In a meeting with Christine Vandenhouten, Director of Nursing Programs, Jenna Liphart-Rhoads, Assistant Professor of Nursing, they discussed the nursing shortage, UW-Green Bay’s nursing programs, and the Workforce Innovation Grant that nursing received in June 2022 (News Release). The grant creates stronger collaboration with academic and health care partners to strengthen the nursing workforce pipeline. Rodriguez, a nurse herself, was excited to hear the early positive outcomes of the grant and meet nursing students in the new prelicensure nursing program. That program will have its first graduates walk across the stage at the upcoming May Commencement. Chancellor Mike Alexander and Provost Kate Burns also met briefly with the Rodriguez during her visit.

Building for Tomorrow, news from Dean Susan Gallagher Lepak

Dear friends and alumni,
Student interest in nursing is at an all-time high but nationally nursing programs struggle to find nursing faculty to teach courses and cover clinical hours at health care settings.

Dean Susan Gallagher Lepak
Dean Susan Gallagher-Lepak, College of Health, Education and Social Welfare

Nursing programs nationwide turned away more than 80,000 qualified applicants in 2020 due to limited nursing faculty and clinical placements at health care settings.

We’re thrilled to have been awarded a grant, titled Expanding Nursing Clinical Instructor Capacity, as part of the Wisconsin Workforce Innovation Grant Program. Gov. Tony Evers shared in announcing the UW-Green Bay award in June that “prioritizing programs that help ensure a strong future for our health care workforce has never been more important.”

The grant has the potential to help the University grow its nursing enrollment and graduate more nurses by employing nurses from Northeast Wisconsin health care organizations as co-clinical instructors.

Your support is critical to supply Wisconsin with more qualified nurses. Let’s build the Nursing Scholarship Fund. Donate today!

Many nurses are interested in teaching but are often reluctant to transition to academia because of lower salaries. The grant provides funding for co-clinical instructors at health care organizations and a nursing faculty, Dr. Jenna Liphart-Rhoads, to coordinate the project and teach nursing courses.

It’s a win-win opportunity. The grant will help UW-Green Bay develop its final year of the program and potentially build future growth. A benefit for health care organizations to share their expert nurses, who must have a Master’s of Science in Nursing to participate, is direct exposure to soon-to-be graduated nurses. Improved communication will be another outcome, with feedback from practicing nurses about aligning clinical content and skills preparation with priorities of health care systems.

The grant began in fall semester with HSHS St. Vincent Hospital and Aurora BayCare Medical Center as initial health care partners. Additional partners will be added throughout the grant, which ends December 31, 2024.

Through this project, a sustainable model for co-clinical instruction will be developed to ensure a strong pipeline of new nurses into the workforce.

Dean Susan Gallagher-Lepak, RN, PhD
College of Health, Education and Social Welfare
Contact: 920-465-2034; gallaghs@uwgb.edu

Wood Hall transformed into high impact learning spaces

UW-Green Bay’s nursing facilities have been in a state of transformation since 2019 as high impact skills labs for the traditional, four-year BSN program have been created. Much of the work now is complete, including a new look for the third floor of Wood Hall on the Green Bay campus.

Nursing assessment lab
The Nursing Skills Center includes three classrooms transformed into lab spaces on the third floor of Wood Hall on the Green Bay campus.

The Aurora BayCare Medical Center Nursing Skills Center includes Room 317, a six-bed skills lab with low to medium fidelity patient simulators where students practice using Electronic Medical Records software and automated medication dispensing system.

Room 324 is equipped with two mock hospital rooms with two-way mirrors for faculty observation of students as they provide care for a simulated patient assignment using two medium fidelity patient simulators.

Room 328 is an eight-station health assessment lab where students learn skills for comprehensive and focused health assessment. Adjacent to the labs is the Cloud Family Digital Learning Lab, where nursing students practice for the NCLEX exam.

Creation of a Home Care Simulation Lab will be the next project. A traditional classroom will be renovated to provide an immersive learning experience that simulates a home setting, and the challenges that carpet, residential furniture and small spaces can present in care.

Hopkinson is new director of MSN Program

Susan Hopkinson started as the new Chair of the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program in June 2022 and is uniquely positioned for this role. She holds a doctorate in Nursing Science from the University of Maryland at Baltimore. She served as Chief of the Center for Nursing Science and Clinical Inquiry (at Tripler Army Medical Center Honolulu, Hawaii, and Womack Army Medical Center Fort Bragg, North Carolina) before starting at UW-Green Bay in August 2021.

Susan Hopkinson
Susan Hopkinson, Chair of Master of Science in Nursing

Her service in the Army spans 27 years, having retired in 2021 as a Colonel. Susan is active in research with publications on military nursing and clinical nursing care, is an associate editor for research in the journal Nursing and Health, and serves as a manuscript reviewer for several others including the American Journal of Nursing, MEDSURG Nursing, and the Journal of Clinical Nursing. She is chair-elect of the program planning committee for the Academy of Medical Surgical Nursing annual national conventions.

The offering of a graduate certificate in nursing leadership has been popular for aspiring and existing health care leaders. Students take four of the MSN courses for the certificate. Students can choose to continue after completion of the certificate for the MSN degree. Learn more about these programs at www.uwgb.edu/msn.

Susan is a native of De Pere, Wisconsin, and has lived all across the United States from Virginia to Hawaii, as well as in Germany and Korea. Outside of her career, Susan enjoys scuba diving, martial arts, and spending time with family.

First seniors to graduate with 4-year BSN

UW-Green Bay’s Nursing Department is getting ready to celebrate a major milestone with the Spring 2023 graduation of its first traditional four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) prepared nurses.

As our alumni and friends, you are aware of the University’s track record for offering quality, accredited undergraduate and graduate nursing programs, starting with the BSN Completion program in 1982.

We are proud of the more than 2,600 health care workers who call themselves UW-Green Bay alumni. In May, 33 prelicensure nurses will join the ranks of graduates with our newest degree program.

To celebrate this first class of prelicensure students, we asked what inspired them to study nursing. Here’s a sample of their responses:

Jordan Barnes
Hometown: South Milwaukee
Major(s): Human Development, Nursing
Minor(s): Psychology and German

Nursing student Jordan Barnes
Jordan Barnes is a nursing student at UW-Green Bay and will graduate in Spring 2023.

“When I was very young, my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer that metastasized and caused him to pass away at the mere age of 48 years old. Having three children to raise as a single parent, my mom went to school for nursing to support my sisters and me. Not only did she become a nurse, but she became a hospice nurse because of the impact that my dad’s hospice nurse left on our family. I saw how much comfort my mom was able to provide for these patients and their families and wanted to be able to do the same.” 

Career goals: I am passionate about babies and infants so I would be very interested in pursuing a path in either maternity or NICU, and possibly going back to school to become a nurse midwife. Birthing centers are fascinating so I think it would be awesome to work in that setting eventually.

Karen Gonzalez Alvarez
Hometown: Green Bay
Major: Nursing
Minor: Psychology

Karen Gonzalez Alvarez
Karen Gonzalez Alvarez is a nursing student at UW-Green Bay and will graduate in Spring 2023.

“I have dreamt of being a nurse from a young age. Something that has inspired me to pursue a nursing career is that Green Bay has a fast-growing Hispanic and Latino community. As a minority student, I would like to help ease the language barriers and help minorities have the same access to health care as everyone else. I am passionate about making a positive impact in my community. I will continue serving and caring for others so that I can  help them reach their health goals.”  

Career goals: After graduation I hope to find the perfect place to continue growing as a nurse. While I am unsure of what unit or specialty I would like to work in, I am excited to continue caring for others. My ultimate career goal is to help others become the best version of themselves.

Napho Xiong
Hometown: Green Bay
Major: Nursing

Napho Xiong
Napho Xiong is a nursing student at UW-Green Bay and will graduate in Spring 2023.

“What inspired me to go into nursing is my personal experience with great nurses. When my mom suffered a stroke and my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the nurses who cared for my parents were absolutely amazing. They showed me how much compassion, empathy, and kindness can impact the quality of care. I hope that one day I will have the same positive impact on my patients and their families.” 

Career goals: My plan after graduation is to work in my hometown as a NICU and/or Pediatric nurse. I am still unsure about what my ultimate career goal is because nursing provides an abundance of different opportunities once becoming a registered nurse.

Brooklyn Simonar
Hometown: Luxemburg
Major: Nursing

Brooklyn Simonar is a nursing student at UW-Green Bay and will graduate in Spring 2023.

“Since I was young, I’ve always had a passion and found my purpose in helping other people. When I started college, I was a psychology major and thought I wanted to be a social worker or a child psychologist. I ruled out nursing as a career for me because I felt I didn’t have the mental strength or the stomach for nursing. But my heart was being pulled in the direction of nursing. I had the opportunity to job shadow my aunt, who is a nurse at Bellin, in January of 2020. I only had to stay for six hours, but I stayed for 10 hours because of how intrigued I was! After that job shadow, I knew nursing was my calling. I got my first CNA job at Aurora in October of 2020 and applied for the nursing program at UW-Green Bay.”

Career goals: I work at Aurora as a Nurse Extern in the Women’s Health Float Pool, where we float to the Labor and Delivery unit, the Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) Unit, and the Gynecology/ Pediatric unit. My supervisor has worked with me so I can transition into a nurse position in the Women’s Health Float Pool after graduation/ After getting about a year or two of experience, I want to be a travel nurse with these specialties and help people all over the United States and possibly even travel to different countries. My ultimate goal after traveling is to come back to Wisconsin, settle down, and find a job back in Women’s Health and Pediatrics.