General dean

Military experience, work in Washington prepared new leader for role at GSU

Is Margaret C. Wilmoth daunted to be the first dean of the newly reorganized Byrdine F. Lewis School of Nursing and Health Professions at Georgia State University? Hardly.

When Wilmoth, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, saw the posting for the position, it spoke to her, she said. Wilmoth, who comes to the helm during a time of dramatic changes in health care, feels prepared to lead through that change.

“I’m having fun and loving it,” she said.

When Wilmoth was growing up, two nurses influenced her choice of professions, an aunt who was a nurse and a neighbor who shared her stories as an Army nurse during World War II.

“I knew I wanted to be an Army nurse from the time I was 6 or 7 years old, but I graduated at the end of the Vietnam War and the Army was drawing down then, so I went into civilian practice,” she said.

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Wilmoth worked as a staff nurse and discovered her niche, oncology nursing.

“I went to the University of Maryland for my master’s degree preparing to be a CNS [clinical nurse specialist], but they stopped hiring [them] by the time I graduated, so I started teaching,” Wilmoth said. “It turned out to be a fabulous career path. Education allowed me to grow in ways that I never expected.”

She enjoyed keeping up with the latest nursing knowledge so she could excite and challenge her students.

Teaching led to research in psychosocial oncology and it gave her space to pursue the dream of becoming an Army nurse. Wilmoth’s father, who had joined the Air Force Reserve after serving as a pilot, encouraged her to join the U.S. Army Reserve. About seven years into her nursing career, while she was teaching at the University of Delaware, Wilmoth took her father’s words to heart.

She joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 1981, serving one weekend every month and two weeks a year. She rose steadily through the ranks and was promoted to brigadier general in 2005. She became the first nurse and first woman to command a medical brigade as a general officer.

‘Cracking the brass ceiling’

Although achieving that rank was unexpected, Wilmoth earned it by taking on difficult jobs and earning a master’s degree in strategic studies from the United States Army War College.

“I was willing to assume command and I had a lot of luck,” she said.

Not everyone was pleased that a woman and a nurse had taken a job previously held by male physicians.

“Cracking the brass ceiling in the military isn’t always easy,” Wilmoth said. “But the intentional way that the Army trains people to become leaders and officers prepared me to be a dean.”

Besides the nursing school, Wilmoth will lead Georgia State’s programs in nutrition, respiratory therapy and physical therapy. Her 2009/2010 Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellowship prepared Wilmoth for interdisciplinary leadership. Taking an academic leave from teaching at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, she spent 18 months working in Washington, D.C., with fellows from other health disciplines.

“After four months of learning the health policy machine in Washington, I was assigned to work in the office of the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi,” she said.

Wilmoth was part of the team that helped negotiate the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

“I learned a lot by watching the speaker, who has phenomenal leadership skills and was so successful in getting legislation passed,” Wilmoth said. “That fellowship was critical to my career and a transformational experience.”

It made the link between research and policy much clearer and taught Wilmoth about the necessity of nurses taking an active role in setting health care policy, she said. Serving on national nursing and health care boards broadened her perspectives and skill sets.

“It reinforced my belief that we should never stop learning. That’s something my parents modeled for me. I truly believe in the importance of education,” she said.

‘Fabulous place to be'

Wilmoth is excited by the interprofessional and collaborative possibilities she sees at Georgia State.

“As a new and smaller organization, we can be more agile. We have the opportunities to do cutting-edge things,” she said.

A new bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and a partnership with Georgia State’s Robinson College of Business to offer a BS in health information technology are two examples. Another is sending a team of nurses and public health professionals to a national interdisciplinary conference so they could tear down barriers and find ways to work together.

Wilmoth believes educators need to think carefully about how they teach health care professionals in light of tomorrow’s needs. Nursing students, for example, need to graduate as good clinicians, but they also need to be business-savvy.

“They need to know about benchmarks, business analytics and the cost/quality ratios, because health care is a business and it’s changing,” she said.

As a leader, Wilmoth believes it’s her job to be cognizant of those changes at the national level, and to ask the questions and instigate discussions that will transform education to meet the needs of the 21st-century work force.

“We have a dedicated faculty and I love the energy here. Georgia State is an exciting and fabulous place to be,” she said.

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