Minnesota Nursing magazine


Mentoring the next generation of nurses

More than role models, preceptors show students how to handle real-life curveballs
Meleah Maynard

Mary O’Donnell became a nurse preceptor shortly after starting work at the University of Minnesota’s Community-University Health Care Clinic as a pediatric nurse practitioner in 2003.

Fourteen years and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree later, it’s a role she still enjoys and feels committed to because she wants to help the next generation of nurses. “I will always remember the nurse practitioner preceptors who made time for me and reaffirmed why I wanted to do what I do,” she said. “This is a way that I can give back.”

There’s something in it for O’Donnell, too. Being a preceptor, she says, makes her a better nurse practitioner. “I learn a lot from my students. They’re aware of the newest thinking and evidence-based practice, and we both learn as we work through problems together. It’s fun and it keeps me on my toes.”

Bridging the gap between the classroom and clinical practice, preceptors are experienced nurses who are knowledgeable about what they do and also want to teach others. By providing supervision in clinical settings as diverse as hospitals, community clinics, nursing homes, birthing centers and school-based health programs, preceptors serve as mentors to pre-licensure and DNP nursing students, helping them develop vital critical-thinking skills on the job.

Currently, the University of Minnesota School of Nursing has about 200 preceptors working with its pre-licensure students, 250 DNP preceptors and more are always needed. DNP students are paired with preceptors according to their specialty. Pairs typically work together for a semester, usually one or two days a week. “Nursing students have learned from preceptors since as early as the Florence Nightingale days in the late 1800s, and they continue to be a core part of nursing education today,” said Christine Mueller, PhD, RN, FAAN, associate dean for academic programs. “Just like medical students, nursing students need real-life experiences to prepare them to be safe and competent practitioners.”

Kari Erickson, who will graduate from the DNP program in May, has learned from more than 10 preceptors over the course of her nursing education. One of her favorites was Mary O’Donnell, whom she was recently paired with at CUHCC. Though Erickson worked seven years in pediatric intensive care before returning to school to earn her DNP degree, she was nervous about practicing at CUHCC, where patients are often immigrants and refugees who may not speak English or be comfortable with American health care settings.

Working with O’Donnell has done more than allay those fears. Erickson says the experience made her a better nurse. “I’ve learned so much about talking to families that come from around the world. Mary is always completely gracious and never gets anxious, even when an interpreter is not immediately available and you just have to do the best you can without them.”

Beyond role modeling, Erickson is also grateful to O’Donnell for making her think for herself. When reporting on a patient, for example, O’Donnell would ask: What are the patients really telling you? What are they afraid of? Do you think you have all of the information you need? “You’re so afraid to make mistakes as a student, but she asks questions without judgment. She would say, ‘Let me hear your best guess and rationale and we’ll go from there and get to where we’re supposed to be,’” Erickson said. “I learned much more than how to practice as a pediatric nurse practitioner. I learned nuances and semantics and how to handle the unexpected because she handled them like a pro.”

To learn more about becoming a preceptor, go to http://z.umn.edu/preceptor.

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.


Above: DNP student Kari Erickson, RN, listens to the lungs of a child, while Mary O’Donnell, DNP, APRN, PNP, observes.