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June 15, 2012
By John Trent
"Yes, you can."
They are words that have come to characterize Susan Ervin's life in too many ways to count.
During the course of a semester, as she stands in front of dozens of students in the Orvis School of Nursing at the University of Nevada, Reno, Ervin may not say these exact words.
But make no mistake about it. They are always there.
They frame every lecture Ervin delivers. They line the margins of every PowerPoint presentation. They serve as the psychological punctuation in conversation and are like a warm, reassuring hand on the shoulder, raising a student's confidence to affirming levels.
They are words that are a constant presence with Ervin, as much a part of her as her voice, where the words move in a light, calm, healing trickle, or the instinctive care for others, which has been braided tightly throughout her life, from the very beginning as the child of a health care couple and as the granddaughter of a World War I nurse.
In her teaching, they are words that have become the bedrock of an extraordinary three-decade career at the University.
They are the reason why Ervin has long been known as one of the finest teachers at the University, and why, in April, a group of people in nice suits walked into her classroom in the Pennington Health Sciences Building to make an unexpected announcement.
Susan Ervin, professor of nursing at the University since 1981, they said, had been chosen as the 2012 winner of the F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award. The award is presented each year, following a rigorous selection process, to the year's top teacher at the University.
For a person whose career had been predicated on telling others what they were capable of doing, it was a moment that brought into clear focus what an outstanding job Ervin has always done.
"Susan has been a stabilizer in the School of Nursing," said Patsy Ruchala, the school's director. "She's one of the best faculty members I've ever had the pleasure working with."
Almost immediately after Ruchala spoke, Ervin quickly deflected the praise.
"It's really easy to be a good teacher with a class like this," she said, pointing to the 40 or so students in the classroom. "A lot of this is due to them."
Not long after, along with Dean of the School of Medicine and Vice President of the Division of Health Sciences Thomas Schwenk, Provost Heather Hardy, Ruchala, and a few others, Ervin posed for an award-winner's photo at the front of the class.
Yet the photo wasn't complete. Ervin motioned for the entire class to get up out of their seats, to walk down the aisle and join them for the photo.
"I want all the students in this picture, too," Ervin said. "It's important that we all squeeze in."
They did, everyone smiling and standing close. They were all brought together by a professor who throughout her life, as a nurse, and as a mother, and as a professor, has always seemed to put the well-being of others before her own.
The ability to stretch a six- or seven-person photo opportunity into a the broad, collaborative vista of a forty-six or forty-seven-person panoramic portrait, the underlying talent to make everyone feel they are important and that their talent counts, has always been one of Ervin's finest attributes, said her mother Zena, who was also on hand that day.
"I think she can identify with her students ... so that she can get through to the part of them where they will learn," said Zena, one of the first graduates of the University of California San Francisco's baccalaureate nursing program and who herself taught nursing. "Good teachers want to help. They want to do. They care. And Susan really cares about all of the things in her life."
Afterward, Ervin said she truly did feel that her class had helped her during the semester, as members of the Tibbitts selection committee shuffled in and out of class to observe her in action.
"We've been through a lot together," she said, noting that the previous semester, she had become a student again, too, by enrolling in UNLV's doctoral program in nursing.
"This class has been with me from the beginning," she explained. "They were (taking the first level of nursing courses in the fall) and we had all of these people coming into class watching for the Division of Health Sciences teaching award. Then, as level twos, they had all these Tibbitts people coming into their class this semester."
Then, Ervin smiled. Her humor is always well-timed. It seems to always come just as the conversation borders on focusing too much on her.
"After all they've been through this semester," she added, with one of her hearty laughs, "the least I can do is feed them for the final."
Susan Ervin has come a long way over the years, and the road she has followed hasn't exactly followed all of the same tidy road signs, though in hindsight the signs do seem obvious.
She grew up in Reno, the daughter of the city's first board-certified thoracic surgeon, John Ervin, and Zena Ervin, who had been a nurse and teacher of nursing. The health care bloodlines didn't end there - John Ervin's mother was a nurse in World War I.
"There's quite a bit in there," Susan said of her family's history.
Yet nursing wasn't her first choice, not at first, anyway. Some of Susan's earliest memories were of wanting to become a teacher.
"Whenever we played school, I always wanted to be the teacher," she said.
So much so that even the most mundane teaching tasks took on great significance. One time, one of her teachers asked young Susan to take charge of the class' seating chart. She did so with gusto and a swelling sense of pride.
"I just thought that was so cool," she said, smiling at the thought of how official, how full of portent, a simple seating chart could seem to a young mind that loved to learn. "Looking back on it now, I think I wanted to be a teacher before I wanted to be a nurse."
But before nursing, before teaching, there was ballet, and a love of dance. Zena remembered that her daughter originally enrolled in the school of dance at the University of Utah. But after a year, there was a conversation and change of academic direction, she said.
"Susan had been (at Utah) for about a year, and she said she wanted to go into nursing, and I said, 'You're not doing it because of me, are you?' And Susan said, 'No, I just really want to go into nursing.' So that was it," Zena said.
Susan did become a nurse, graduating with her both her bachelor's and master's degrees in the field from the University of Utah. She was a nurse at the university medical center in Salt Lake City, and branched into teaching at nearby Westminster College.
In 1981, she moved back to Reno and was hired to the faculty of Orvis.
There were many challenges ahead of her.
Among them: How to teach.
"I had no formal education courses," she said. "I had no clue as to what I was doing. But I enjoyed the students and I enjoyed working with them. I can remember students giving me good feedback in both clinical and didactic courses."
She soaked up information, took it all in with a beginner's eagerness. She carefully watched senior faculty, people such as the late Millie Harmon, who for more than 25 years was one of the School of Nursing's stalwarts. Harmon was a practitioner of the Socratic Method, and had a way of gently getting answers out of her students without them fully realizing they were being taught important chunks of material.
"Millie was awesome," Ervin said. "She was my mentor. One of the things that I remember most about Millie was whenever a student would ask a question, she would immediately say, 'I don't know ... what do you think?'
"That way, she would get them to think, and to answer their own question, to learn something important. To this day, I use that to some degree."
Even as she was learning how to become a more effective teacher, Ervin knew from the onset that she loved her profession, that something special was happening as she stood in front of a classroom and calmed students' initial fears, taught them the needed information, and readied them for a real nursing world where the stakes were always high, but also where the payoff could be so personally rewarding.
"You have to enjoy it," Ervin said of her teaching. "You have to have some element of wanting to relate to your students. You have to have some elements of being kind and wanting to see people succeed. The technology, the moving over the years from writing on the board to the PowerPoints to the videos, all that is important.
"But you have to have some degree of caring about people and wanting to see them succeed."
For her first-semester nursing students, Ervin counsels all of them to keep a journal. They don't have to share it with anyone; rather, it's a way to measure their own personal proficiencies, their growth in key areas over the course of a semester where growth is important and must occur if a student is to become a proficient nurse.
"They get this idea that when they first go into a hospital (after four weeks of intensive "front-loading" of material and information), they can't do anything," Ervin said. "But they really can. They can do a lot more than they think they can. When they look back at their journal, after a few weeks, they're usually pretty amazed at how far they've come, and how many things they've actually accomplished."
When Susan Ervin takes stock of her 31 years at the University, she, too, is a little amazed at what all has happened. Students from years ago still stay in touch with her. As she juggles her own studies in pursuit of her doctorate with her teaching load at the University, she finds it interesting to note that one of the members of her doctoral cohort is a former student.
It does not seem that long ago when, as a single mother, she would come to her office on the weekends in the old Orvis School of Nursing Building, bringing her three sons, Vincent, Christopher and Stephen and the family's black lab, Chloe, along with her.
While Ervin prepared the next lesson or worked on lessening the mound of papers to be graded on her desk, she would hear the delightful squealing of young boys' voices echoing down the hallways, the sound of wheeled chairs careening around corners at breakneck speed, the occasional excited baritone bark of a dog.
"We all sort of grew up in Orvis," she said. "But that's always been great. Things have always been so positive. It is kind of neat to think about things were then, and how they are now."
Today, Orvis is situated on the third floor of the Pennington Health Sciences Building, which opened last year. The sparkling halls aren't as easily navigated by a wheeled chair, obviously, but there remains a strong sense of community.
Ervin, sitting in her office a couple of weeks after the Tibbitts in-class presentation, runs through the recent events in the school. A colleague down the hall also has a grandson about the same age as hers. Another faculty member has kids about the same age as Ervin's three boys when Ervin first joined the faculty. An administrative aide just had a baby.
"There is a new generation of babies and children," Ervin said, smiling with pride.
And there she goes again.
Talking about others' good fortune, when she should be talking about winning the University's most important teaching award.
The 2012 Tibbitts Award winner is a little embarrassed by the attention.
"I really don't see myself that way," she said. "I'm a kind of low-key person. I don't need a lot of attention. I don't need to be the center of attention. It's a huge honor, and I really am flattered, but I don't know if I need to shout it from the rooftops."
For those who know Susan Ervin, for those who have taken her courses and been influenced by her ability to remind them that they are capable of much more, there is only one thing to say as this special, self-deprecating, exceedingly caring, talented, intelligent woman questions whether it's OK to shout the news from the rooftops.
Yes, you can.