Heidi Mennenga, Christina Plemmons, and Sarah Mollman each hold a PhD in Nursing from UNLV’s School of Nursing. They also hold top leadership positions — from research to academic programs to collaborative partnerships — at South Dakota State University’s (SDSU) College of Nursing (which is spread out among hundreds of miles in four different cities).
Though they never planned or expected to end up at the same university with the same doctorate, they work together to use what they learned from UNLV to enhance the nursing profession.
Opening Doors to A New World of Nursing: Heidi Mennenga
Leadership was not on Heidi Mennenga’s checklist during her early years as a nurse. But with a “Never say never” at attitude and a PhD in Nursing Education, she's now an associate dean for academic programs at SDSU’s College of Nursing.
She earned her bachelor’s and master’s nursing degrees at SDSU, but sought out her doctorate somewhere new.
“I was just very straightforward with people that I wanted my degrees from different institutions,” Mennenga says. “We encourage faculty to strive for that variety in their education. Of course, we want people to be part of our PhD program, but we also encourage faculty to choose what is best for their personal and professional goals.”
Mennenga was attracted to UNLV's emphasis on nursing education research and its flexible format, which allowed allowing her to live in South Dakota. She started her PhD track in 2007 while she was full-time faculty at SDSU. She graduated from UNLV in 2010.
“It's always nice to go out and see how things are done elsewhere and expand those professional boundaries. If you stay within your own silo, you only know what and who you know, whereas by going to an external university, just networking alone is huge.”
In fact, Mennenga focused her dissertation on team-based learning while at UNLV before bringing related concepts to SDSU’s undergraduate program. She also shared UNLV Nursing’s immersion model of bringing students to campus to connect more with faculty and fellow classmates with colleagues who were re-envisioning the college’s PhD program.
Mennenga's accomplishments at SDSU include leading a $2.7 million HRSA grant to train more registered nurses in the primary care setting. As associate dean, Mennenga oversees all of the institution’s academic programs, which are located at four campuses across South Dakota. She works collaboratively with fellow UNLV alumna Christina Plemmons and Sarah Mollman as needed on research-centric topics.
“I oversee the PhD program because it's an academic program, but Sarah certainly has a lot of input into research that's going on within the college of nursing, in her role as the ADR. Our entire leadership team works collaboratively,” Mennenga says.
Being the first of the three to receive her PhD, Mennenga was able to share her positive memories with Plemmons on UNLV’s doctoral program, and in turn, that information was shared with Mollman.
“It had that snowball effect where it took one good recommendation and it went from there on down the road.”
Even though Mennenga didn’t set out to become associate dean, she is nonetheless grateful for the professional chances afforded through her PhD.
“You have no idea how many doors your doctoral degree can open for you, and you may find yourself in positions you never thought you would be in. For me, when the opportunity presented itself, the timing was right, and I knew I was ready. It allows you to make an impact and to be in a position where you can create change and foster that growth of others.”
She adds it’s imperative for nursing schools to find ways to promote doctoral degree tracks and to make them more accessible.
“When I graduated with my [bachelor’s], I was never going back to school, and look where I wound up. A large reason why I went back was I had people who said, ‘I think you'd be great at this,’ or ‘I think you'd enjoy nurse education; give this a try.’ Then I did, realizing I liked it.
"As people who have doctoral degrees or advanced education, it's up to us to have those individual conversations with people where we see potential and let them know we see that potential. Sometimes all you have to do is plant that seed and then they go from there.”
A Nursing Path Forged By Family: Sarah Mollman
Sarah Mollman’s career path has brought her to among the top nurse leadership roles at SDSU, but it all started with her grandparents.
Mollman was born and raised in South Dakota, living nearly her whole life in the Mount Rushmore state. Mollman’s journey to nursing essentially began as a teenager. When she was 16 years old, she was asked if she knew CPR after her grandfather passed out.
“We lived in a small town,” she explains. “My brother and I were not adults yet, [but] could get there faster than EMS and other family members. He fainted, but thankfully he wasn’t in full cardiac arrest. Knowing what to do at that moment drove me to go into nursing.”
Mollman earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SDSU, then joined the university as faculty in 2015 while taking her PhD courses. She admits her PhD program search started with Google, narrowing down her options. She was already acquainted with UNLV SON alumna Christina Plemmons from working together at the same hospital.
“I was able to talk to her for inside information,” Mollman says.
In addition to Plemmons’ praise of UNLV, Mollman realized she didn’t have to travel extensively and leave a young family at home. She began her doctorate work in 2014 and earned her PhD from UNLV School of Nursing in 2018, the same year she was promoted to the assistant professor tenure track.
Mollman’s dissertation concerned ways to increase intentional learning in nursing students.
“Intentional learning includes self-efficacy, motivation to learn self-directed and self-regulated learning which results in high-order thinking and life-long learning.” She adds teaching and studying simultaneously allowed her to strengthen each skill. “You start looking at things differently. As you go through the coursework, you start seeing the bigger picture: all the complexities of education, nursing, and the world. You start asking different questions.”
She started as associate dean of research in May 2022 and will the research side of her college, specifically providing the necessary resources for faculty and directly asking what they need.
“It'll be, ‘What is your full trajectory? Do you have that full support system in place? Do you have key mentors in place?’ Right now, there’s a lot of work on just the guidelines and processes.”
By keying in on infrastructure, she can identify the gaps needing to be filled so faculty will feel supported and will grow.
For her own research, Mollman was inspired by her grandmother, who developed a serious health condition and was admitted for surgery.
“She was almost 88 years old, [and] nobody asked her what she wanted. Nobody gave her an option other than surgery. When I got there 12 days later, she said, ‘I'm done. I don't want to do this anymore.’ She had, in my opinion, two weeks that she didn't need to endure. We could have made her comfortable in our hometown with family.”
As a result, Mollman specializes in palliative care to give that level of support for patients she felt her grandmother didn’t have.
“A lot of that is quality of life. It's pain [and] symptom management, but it is also having those conversations with family [and] your providers. Good quality of life, whatever that might be, [is] enjoying whatever we can get you to do. Is it one last wedding? Is it the birth of a baby? Can we plan ahead a little bit to make sure they get the care that they want, or maybe don't want?”
Having those conversations and experiencing those patient moments changed Mollman’s own outlook on life.
“I'm a lot more, ‘live each day to the fullest, don't live in fear, do what you want to do, enjoy life.’ They gave so much back to me because it changed that perspective.”
Through her PhD education, Mollman learned it’s acceptable to become a novice again even after earning multiple nursing degrees.
“Maybe you were an expert educator, but you're going to be a novice researcher or PhD prepared faculty member. Maybe [you’re going to] be a novice in a PhD course you're going to teach. Just give yourself some grace to realize you're not going to know everything. You're not expected to be an expert when you graduate.”
She also realized how much easier it can be to focus when taking breaks, especially without distractions.
“I discovered I am way more productive. I quit listening to anything because I couldn't put anything new in my brain. I just needed to process what I was learning. A couple weeks ago, I tried to see if I could listen to music or podcasts while I walked my dogs, and I couldn’t do it. I think your brain just needs that processing time. There's so much to learn.”
South Dakota is known as a more frontier state, which Mollman says is emphasized in their nurse teachings, from finding ways to reach rural areas to having a wider scope of practice and knowledge.
“What we teach is if they want to do more of that rural setting, you don't specialize. You don't just do oncology. You don't just do maternal health. You're doing it all. You never know what's coming in the door.”
She says they also teach cultural responsibility, alluding to nine Nations that share geography with South Dakota that encounter health disparities, such as physical environment obstacles that could block proper care, like lack of internet or phone service.
But Mollman isn’t fazed by the challenges. Now in her new role, she’s more determined to make a positive impact in the state.
“My greatest goal and hope for this ADR position is that the College of Nursing at SDSU will be doing research that positively impacts the residents of South Dakota and the region, and we get that research to the people. We don't just generate new knowledge and not use it. We need to get it to society and make improvements to our system and affect people.”
Collaboration, Competency, and Confidence in Nursing: Christina Plemmons
Despite a six-hour commute to work, Christina Plemmons doesn’t find herself spread thin. Starting as a nurse educator for SDSU, Plemmons now serves as assistant dean for cooperative programs, overseeing collaborative efforts between the Aberdeen and Rapid City sites (more than 300 miles apart). She strives to improve the SDSU nursing student experience through educational research and partnerships.
Originally from Spokane, Washington, Plemmons graduated from Gonzaga University with a bachelor’s degree in business science. Various life events found her moving to Rapid City, S.D., where she decided to shift careers.
“I was looking for something where I would feel more connected to people,” Plemmons says. “I was thinking, ‘education or nursing’ because I thought they were two completely different things; now, I am in education and nursing.”
Drawn to the interpersonal nature of nursing, Plemmons enrolled in SDSU. Her clinical instructors inspired her interest in nurse education which became a passion after starting her work as a registered nurse.
“I was asked to take on the charge responsibility and part of that is orienting new hires. I really liked onboarding people to our unit. Then SDSU contacted me and asked if I would work [as] an instructor for one of their students; I was hooked.”
From that moment on, Plemmons wanted to become a nurse educator and became a full-time instructor for SDSU after earning her master’s in Nursing Education. Though she enjoyed working with students, Plemmons wanted to affect nurse education directly. She believed that with a PhD, she could improve nursing education as a whole.
At the time, Plemmons had identified UNLV’s PhD program as a possibility.
“The part-time option; ability to take courses online; use of their cohort model to support students; the work of the faculty; it all looked great,” she remembered.
Taking advice to inquire with others about their choice of PhD program, Plemmons asked Mennenga, with whom she served on an undergraduate curriculum committee, about her experience at UNLV.
“Heidi had glowing things to say about UNLV,” Plemmons says. “Knowing somebody who was successful and had high regard for the program weighed a lot. I think we have similar values in education, and I trust her judgment implicitly.”
In 2011, Plemmons decided on UNLV and began working toward her doctoral degree. For the next five years, she balanced online studies with work and family responsibilities.
For her dissertation, Plemmons researched the effects of clinical teaching models on student confidence; clinicals help prepare nursing students by having them apply the skills they’ve learned in a hospital setting. The Dedicated Education Unit (DEU) is a newer method of instruction that Plemmons was interested in researching.
“The DEU had anecdotal information that said students felt they [were] more confident in their abilities,” Plemmons explains. “Confidence in nursing research is tied to competence, so I wanted to see some quantitative data.”
She surveyed students who were each in the same level of education and on medical-surgical units, and were involved in either the traditional, DEU, or blended clinical teaching models to gain comparative data. Plemmons took note that while all three models improved self-efficacy and attitudes towards teamwork, the DEU and blended models had a statistically significant increase compared to the traditional model. However, even though the DEU and blended methods deliver better results in regards to nurse confidence, Plemmons says there are drawbacks to implementing them: higher costs and overworking instructors. Additionally, she says that as a tried and true method, the traditional model is more accepted by healthcare organizations.
In 2016, Plemmons completed the PhD program and attributes her success to professors.
“The PhD faculty lived a student-centered approach; the subtle ways of communicating, providing feedback, and the way they kept in touch; I had a wonderful dissertation advisor [and] an incredible team,” Plemmons says.
She added, “Those educators would say, ‘You did the work,’ but I would credit that they stayed connected with me and always provided meaningful feedback so I could continue to grow and reach my personal goals.”
Plemmons eventually recommended the UNLV PhD in Nursing program to Mollman, who she had previously known in nursing practice.
“Her specialty was oncology and mine was medical-surgical nursing, but we were under the same manager, so we got to know each other as nursing colleagues,” Plemmons remembered. “She was a great patient care advocate and a great team player. Every time I showed up to work and I saw her name on the schedule, I was looking forward to a great shift.”
Since earning her PhD, Plemmons has served as director, assistant dean, and interim assistant dean within SDSU’s College of Nursing. She now meets monthly with Mennenga and Mollman to plan for SDSU’s future collaborative projects. In her position, Plemmons manages both the Aberdeen and Rapid City locations. As a nurse educator, she enjoys finding ways to innovate educational techniques and methods.
“Everyone has a personal feeling about change,” Plemmons says. “I love change. I always get excited if we can try something different if it’s going to work better, cost less, or if it’s just more enjoyable to use.”
By earning her doctoral degree, Plemmons found new opportunities to introduce change in nursing education.
“The PhD opened doors I didn’t even know I was going to knock on.”