Celina “Lee” Siwula, Director of the Prelicensure BSN Program at Immaculata University, spoke to VISTA Today about growing up in a tight-knit family in Chester County; how she was “painfully shy” as a teenager, and how her first job at a fabric store in Exton pulled her out of her shell; and going to school for nursing because she knew she wanted to help other people.
Siwula also discussed her first experience at Immaculata, as a student in the RN to BSN program; spending 21 years as a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit; her return to campus; and the challenges and opportunities she’s focused on in 2022.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born the second of five kids at Bryn Mawr Hospital and worked there for 21 years! I spent most of my growing-up years in Paoli before my family moved to Exton.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a stay-at-home mom for most of our childhood. When I was a teenager, she worked in a mailroom part-time to bring in some extra money. She went back to school in her late 40s to be a licensed practical nurse and did that for 8 years.
My father was a postmaster at the Paoli post office.
What memories do you have of growing up in Paoli and Exton?
My family was very close. We were all very different, but we were very close. We lived next to one set of my grandparents and close to aunts and uncles. When I think back to those days, I remember the smell of homemade pasta sauce cooking. Between my grandmother and my mom, they were always cooking something. There was so much love and support in our home.
I was painfully shy as a kid, and that presents challenges when you’re growing up and have to go to school. My parents never said, “let us help you with that.” It was always, “you can do this.” They supported me and gave me ideas on how to be more comfortable, and I grew so much from that and have taken that with me throughout my life.
When did you start to come out of your shell?
It wasn’t until after high school. I had my first job at a fabric store called Dress and Drape, where I worked for one year before nursing school. I had to interact with the public in that job, which began to pull me out of my shell. I learned to make eye contact, smile, project my voice, and form relationships. Not just with the people you work with, but also with the customers. When I went to nursing school, that’s when I really learned to be more outgoing. You can’t go into nursing and be shy!
Did you play any sports in high school?
No sports, but I was in the marching band for a year. I played the flute. I still have it and like to play it!
Did you have any other jobs in high school?
Nothing in high school. I worked at Dress and Drape right after I graduated high school.
What kind of music were you listening to back then?
When I think of my childhood, I think of the band called Yes! I loved Michael Jackson and The Moody Blues. Those were my three go-to’s.
Were you a good student?
I was not a very strong student in high school because I was so painfully shy, which really hurt me.
Where did you go to college?
In the 1970s, I went to the Chester County Hospital School of Nursing for the diploma RN program.
I always wanted to be somebody who helped other people. It comes from watching my mom, even though she became a nurse after me, but her support of people was inspiring. I didn’t know much about nursing other than taking care of people and making them feel good.
I joined the health careers club my senior year of high school and got to see the nurses in action. That really sealed it for me. That human piece of connecting and being with people really resonated with me.
You went to the Chester County School of Nursing, and then what?
I received my diploma RN there. I did not do a bachelor’s degree at the time. It was a strong clinical program, and I started working in intensive care two weeks after graduation.
As time went on, I knew I needed my bachelor’s degree to be the best nurse I could be. After I had my four children, I went back to school, and I did the 4-year full-time RN to BSN program at Immaculata University while working full-time in the intensive care unit. I was a busy young mom!
That was my first taste of Immaculata, and when I walked on campus, it just felt right. It’s a beautiful campus, and there’s just something so welcoming about the school when you first arrive. The people here are kind, caring, and supportive. Having the sisters here is also wonderful. I spent four years in the program, and that was just the beginning! I wound up back at Immaculata later in life.
I spent 21 years working in the ICU, and I decided I wanted to go further in my career by getting my master’s degree. I wanted to improve myself and do more for my patients and nursing.
Why? Where does your drive to be better come from?
I think that drive comes from my dad and my mom. My dad was a workhorse. Nothing stopped my dad. When he went to work, he did his job 1000%. He did what he needed to do to support the family and be the best he could be. He never settled for less. Between that and my mom, who always said, “keep going, you got this, you can do this,” it just never dawned on me that I wouldn’t do something more someday. My parents are my backbone.
Looking back, Lee, who were the people who saw promise in you?
I will note, first and foremost, my parents. My husband, parents, and siblings are and have always been so supportive of everything I do.
I have always applied my degrees directly to what I’m doing in my work as a nurse. I don’t just want letters; I like the knowledge and application. My first master’s degree, a Master’s of Education, was not offered at Immaculata.
After 21 years in the ICU, I moved into certified school nursing (CSN). The Master of Education in school health services was an excellent fit for my time in school nursing. Towards the end of my time in school nursing, I started to teach a few elective graduate courses at Penn State Great Valley.
As a CSN, I was doing a lot of adult teaching with the teachers, parents, and school bus drivers, and I loved it. I decided to get a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) in the nurse education tract. That’s when I met Dr. Jane Tang, who was the MSN program director at Immaculata, and now serves as the Division Chair. I don’t know how to explain it, but she just makes you feel like you will succeed here at Immaculata. Dr. Tang was my support which led me to the job I have today. When I applied, I really did not have sufficient experience. It was Dr. Tang who really advocated for me when I applied for the job. She knew I would grow into the role.
A year after I finished the MSN program, the Doctor of Higher Education in the nursing concentration started at Immaculata. The timing was impeccable! I was hesitant to ask my husband Ed since we were already so busy. Still, he was incredibly supportive of all my endeavors. Oddly enough, we received a mailer from Immaculata promoting the program. He brought it to me as something I should do! I couldn’t believe it. That was my sign.
Here we are at the beginning of 2022; what are the challenges and opportunities you’re focused on?
The biggest challenge right now for Immaculata is that we’ve had a rapid increase in our pre-licensure enrollment. This is not meant as a negative! We have very high pass rates on the RN licensure exam, and have exceeded national and state pass rates. With the challenges presented by COVID-19, we still stayed above those rates, which drives up enrollment.
People want to know that they will not only pass the exams, but they will be quality nurses when they graduate. Our preparation for the licensure exam goes throughout the program and after students graduate until they take the exam. In addition, we have a program that we use that helps supports them after graduation.
The challenge with high enrollment is that have a sudden need for more faculty to help meet our students’ needs. We like to keep our classes small enough to give individual attention. We co-teach having two professors per class, but the challenge is that we need more faculty, for which we are hiring.
We need to support our students, advise them, and help them to be successful, which can be challenging with a larger group of students. There are opportunities to engage and mentor new faculty to be top-notch nursing educators to our students. This increase in enrollment increases workload, so we adjust and are all learning together as we support each other and our students.
Any new programs or classes you’re developing?
The Second-Degree Accelerated BSN (ABSN) program started in 2020. It is a 15-month program, where students come in with the prerequisites completed, or they finish them during the pre-nursing semester before the 15 months of nursing begins. It’s an intense program.
We are looking ahead to a couple of newer programs, including an LPN to RN program. We have LPNs in our four-year program and our ABSN program. We are looking at the possibility of adding weekend classes for our adult and working students in the future. In all tracks of the prelicensure BSN program, students get a nursing advisor the second they join the program, and we support and guide the students throughout the program.
Are you online or in-person?
We only went online for a few months when COVID-19 hit. We’ve been face-to-face since the summer of 2020. The students and the instructors were not great fans of being online, mainly because our programs are so hands-on, and we love the in-person interaction. It was challenging, but we learned so much from going online. We have so many resources now to help us that we did not know about before and can now supplement with online interaction if we need to.
What do you do with your free time?
When I’m at work, I’m 100% at work. I have to put my all here. When I’m at home, I want to be all in for my family. It’s just Ed and me at home now, and my kids and grandkids are spread out from local areas and as far as Idaho.
Gardening is my second-favorite thing after my family – flowers, vegetables. I have a small greenhouse outback. My kitchen looks like a garden too!
Do you read much?
I love to read. I think I have a different taste in books. I like fiction that makes your heart race, including Stephen King and Dean Koontz.
What gives you hope, Lee?
God gives me hope. I have a strong faith. I genuinely believe and know that if something challenges me at Immaculata or at home, God will provide what we need as long as we put our effort in.
I have support at Immaculata from my boss and coworkers, and we know we will get through when they get tough.
We see our students grow so much throughout their time here, which is inspiring.
Finally, Lee, what’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have two best pieces of advice. One came from my dad – “always admit your mistakes” and one from my mom – “never give up, you can do this.” Put those two things together, and they are why I can do what I do now.
No one is perfect, and sometimes it doesn’t always work out, but we must learn from it and make things better. These pieces of advice are my driving force.
Publisher’s Note: Laura Wagoner contributed to this leadership profile.