When School of Nursing Alumna of the Year Cynthia O’Neal was a fourth-grader, she watched as her mother took on the additional chore of returning to college to pursue a nursing degree. Turns out her mom wasn’t charting a career path just for herself.
“I developed a love for learning and a passion for nursing by watching my mom,” O’Neal said. “So much so that in the fourth grade, I wrote a paper that explained why I wanted to become a nurse.”
That goal remained unchanged when O’Neal arrived at UNLV in the late 1980s, already with a bachelor’s degree in hand. She not only completed the additional requirements to earn her nursing degree in two years, in 1990, she did so while working night shifts in the state’s Las Vegas-based mental-health facility. O’Neal again juggled coursework and a full-time job when she worked as a psychiatric nurse at Montevista Hospital while pursuing a master’s she would complete in 1993.
Today, armed with more than a quarter-century of academic and clinical nursing experience, O’Neal is the associate dean for undergraduate studies at University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Additionally, O’Neal — who earned her doctorate in nursing from Vanderbilt University — is the co-director on a state-funded grant that aims to increase faculty capacity for simulation while enhancing student clinical competency.
Not surprisingly, O’Neal credits her mom for instilling what amounts to a lifelong passion for a most noble profession.
“During the time I was in the nursing program at UNLV, I moved in with my mom, and the closeness we had always experienced rose to new levels, as I was then an independent adult,” she said. “I worked full-time while balancing a heavy course load, and her emotional support and encouragement gave me strength to excel and be successful. She still inspires me to this day.”
What’s the most important characteristic a nursing student must possess?
Curiosity. That means questioning why, exploring how, and seeking understanding. Nursing students invoke curiosity when they want to know more about how the body responds and how best to help people with changes in health. As nurses, they will continue to question and learn so they can improve the health of individuals, families, and communities. Lifelong learning is a tenet of the nursing profession, and having curiosity fuels the love of learning lifelong.”
What’s one career challenge that you conquered thanks to lessons learned during your time at UNLV?
While enrolled in the leadership track of the master’s program, I learned how to look at situations objectively and how to discuss issues with equanimity. In leadership classes, I was exposed to diplomacy and negotiation strategies — important skills that were essential when I was suddenly appointed to my first administrative position as interim department chair. Shortly after assuming the role, I was charged with expanding a nursing program to three regional campuses within a four-month time frame. Diplomacy and equanimity were critical skills that helped me accomplish this massive initiative.
What advice do you have for today’s UNLV nursing students as they try to navigate our changed world?
I would encourage them to realize that good nurses are skilled at teamwork and accessing resources. Nurses must be committed to discovering resources while collaborating with colleagues to help people navigate health concerns. The use of resources and employing a team approach is not a sign of weakness but one of strength. Achievements happen with the support and efforts of many, not of one.