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5 Minutes with Cheryl Petersen

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Department: Nursing
Title: Assistant Professor
Best Office Artifact: Collection of cards, emails, and notes from students.

Working with pediatric cancer patients at the end of their lives is one of the most difficult jobs there is. While hesitant to follow that path early in her career, Professor Cheryl Petersen now says she wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“I now realize that end of life work is my vocation, and it has brought incredible meaning and purpose to my life. Almost a decade later, I cannot even imagine what my life would be like if I had not had the privilege of learning so much from the special children and families that I have met along the way. Their goodness, courage, and faith in the face of such challenges inspire me every day.”

Having worked in pediatrics for 23 years before coming to Carthage, Professor Petersen brings an immense amount of real-world experience, advice, and passion to the classroom. Her dedication and kindness continue to impact nursing students as they discover their own paths to the medical field.

We talked to Professor Petersen about her experiences working in end of life care, the Nursing Department’s evolution, and what she hopes students take away from her courses.

How did you become interested in nursing?

“My mom was a nurse, and I always loved working with kids, so it felt like a natural fit for me to pursue nursing.”

What was your journey to becoming a professor at Carthage like? Why did you choose Carthage?

“Cancer has affected the lives of many family members of mine, and their struggles, losses, and subsequent challenges inspired me to pursue a PhD. I was so incredibly fortunate to receive funding that allowed me to pursue the BSN-to-PhD Program at Marquette University. Upon graduation, my mentor at Marquette, Dr. Margaret Callahan, indicated that Dr. Frank Hicks, a former colleague of hers, was developing a nursing program at Carthage College. She told me that he was an exceptional leader and that he would develop a strong program. That conversation led me here!”

What are some unexpected paths you have taken in your career so far?

“I never expected to become an expert in end of life care. I will never forget my first conversation with Dr. Margaret Bull, the Director of the Doctoral Program in the College of Nursing at Marquette University, in 2010. She knew I was interested in research focused on children with cancer, and when she suggested that I focus on palliative and end of life care, I told her that my heart just could not take that work! For the next three months, I could not get her words out of my head or my heart. I spoke with our palliative care fellow at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, where I was working as an oncology nurse, and I asked him how he managed the sadness that was involved in working with children at the end of life. His answer changed my life: these children will die whether he was there or not, but what an incredible honor it is to be able to help them find peace and joy in their final days.”

How have you pushed students outside of their comfort zones?

“This past semester, I had the honor of teaching a Carthage Symposium class with Professor Sandie Bisciglia. The course taught students how to effectively communicate with people who are facing the end of life in order to help them strengthen their relationships, express their feelings, identify sources of hope, and ultimately, find peace. While the content definitely pushed students outside of their comfort zones, I was happy to learn that many of our students in the course believed that the course helped them to heal from substantial losses in their own lives. It was truly an honor to work with Professor Bisciglia, who is such a dynamic, inspiring end of life expert from the Religion Department. I look forward to teaching the course again with her over J-Term, 2020!” 

How has the Carthage Nursing Program evolved since its start a few years ago?  

“As our student body in the Department of Nursing has grown immensely, our faculty have also grown, not only in numbers but through the integration of evidence-based strategies to help our students be successful. We are truly included, as faculty, in the decision-making processes that have guided the development of the nursing program, and the knowledge and strength of each member of our staff and faculty have led to the strong nursing program that we have today.” 


• • •

Teaching allows me to make a greater difference in the world…not only in the lives of my students, but also for the patients whose lives they touch!”

• • •


When asked about their favorite Carthage professor, many nursing students list you for your ability to push them toward greatness while teaching kindness and integrity. What has teaching meant for you and what do you hope students take away from your courses?

“Wow…that really just made my day, for it is what I most hope to do as a teacher. I share many stories with my students that exemplify that while it is vital to strive for excellence in all that you do clinically, that excellence is rather empty without compassion, kindness, and integrity. My work with patients with cancer and their families has taught me the power of kind words, a touch, a smile. I want my students to understand the meaning of being “present” for our patients, being there to experience the struggles, the fear, the anger, the joy…together, and what a gift that is to those who are vulnerable and afraid. I want my students to go out into the world and do everything they can to make it a better place…not only will that bring joy and peace to others, but they will truly receive back so much more than they give. I want them to find that their work truly defines who they are and that it brings them great fulfillment in life…a true sense of vocation. Teaching allows me to make a greater difference in the world…not only in the lives of my students, but also for the patients whose lives they touch!”

How has your extensive experience in the field of pediatrics contributed to your role as a professor?

“I share stories of the special children and families that I have met through my work in pediatrics all the time in my class. I think it makes what the students are learning about come alive through real-life application. I want them to realize that our work as nurses affects the lives of real people, with families who love them, and what you learn today as a student may save a life tomorrow.” 

Any favorite memories or moments from your time at Carthage?

“My favorite moments at Carthage involve the letters, cards, texts, and emails that I receive from students sharing how I have affected their lives or inspired them to make the world a better place. They mean the world to me. I have a folder in my office and a frame that holds some of these special notes. On challenging days, I often take the time to read them, and they inspire me.” 

What is your favorite class to teach?

“That is a really tough question….I really do love all of the classes that I teach, just for different reasons. I so enjoy sharing stories from my years as a pediatric nurse and hearing that these experiences have inspired students to pursue work with children. I love to teach statistics to help students overcome the inherent fear that typically accompanies the topic and come to realize that knowledge of statistics can allow them to critique research that guides their practice. I enjoy the challenge of making my research course fun, since my first research course as an undergraduate was anything but entertaining!

Lastly, I believe the spiritual care course that I teach with Sandie Bisciglia is groundbreaking in many ways, for it prepares our students to talk about end of life issues with humane, compassionate words that will hopefully bring peace to many who face the end of life.”

What are some hobbies or interests you have that may be surprising to students?

“I love interior design and am excited to be moving to a new home this summer. I will be binge-watching my favorite HGTV show, Fixer Upper, for inspiration in the coming weeks. One of my favorite things to do in my free time is to check out new restaurants with my son, Erik, especially if they are on the water somewhere! I love the outdoors, and being out in nature is my favorite place to be. Cooking and baking are hobbies of mine that most of my students know about, for I am known to have dinner parties at the end of clinicals and sometimes bake my homemade blondie brownies as prizes for the winning Jeopardy team in my statistics class (I have to make statistics fun somehow!)” 

What advice do you have for new or prospective students interested in nursing? Anything you wish you would have known as an undergrad?  

“My advice is to focus on your studies, for nursing is a very difficult curriculum, and complete all of your readings! Keep an open mind as you take courses in all of the different specialty areas, and don’t stop looking until you find your true calling in life!”

Anything else you would like to add about your work or time at Carthage?

“In one of my final classes this past semester, we talked about gratitude and how this concept helps people find peace and joy, whether they are facing the end of life or just another day of a long life. I told them that every day, as I walk through the beautiful campus to my office in Lentz Hall, I say a prayer of thanks, for I am truly grateful to be working at such a wonderful place where I am supported and so genuinely happy in the work that I am doing.”

— Interview by Madeline Paakkonen ’21

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    • Carthage is named a Best Midwestern College by The Princeton Review (2020), a designation given to only 25 percent of four-year schools.

    • The Tower, Carthage’s newest residence hall, provides some of the best views on campus — if not in the Midwest! In addition to #carthageviews of the lake from seven stories up, residents enjoy suite-style living and two floors of shared campus spaces for gaming, cooking, group meetings, or quiet studying. Learn more about all housing options.

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    • What’s better than one professor? Two professors. What’s better than two professors? Two professors from totally different fields teaching a single class. There’s debate. Discussion. Differing perspectives. This is where the magic happens. That’s why every student takes a Carthage Symposium.

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