UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Fall is traditionally a time of new beginnings, especially in academia. For Nikki Hill, one of the newest faculty members in the Penn State College of Nursing, the fall 2015 semester marks just the latest in a series of such beginnings.
After completing four Penn State degrees — including three nursing degrees — and a postdoctoral fellowship in the span of 15 years, Hill began her Penn State career as an assistant professor of nursing this semester.
It’s a far cry from what she imagined her life would be upon graduating from Bellefonte Area High School in 1992. Unsure of what she wanted to do, she enrolled in Penn State’s Eberly College of Science as a biology major.
“I liked science, but had no real career plan,” she said. After getting her degree in 2000, she worked in several non–science related jobs that she described as “reasonably fulfilling, but I found myself seeking opportunities to make a positive impact on the well-being of others.” She fulfilled a desire to make a difference in people’s lives by volunteering for Centre Volunteers in Medicine and the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.
Through her work with these two organizations, Hill met two Penn State alumnae — Sherry Campagna DelGrosso and Sara Hine Songer — who inspired her to consider a career in nursing. In 2003, after much consideration, she did just that. “I told my husband I wanted to quit my job and become a nurse,” she said.
Getting a second bachelor’s degree proved time consuming. Since many of Hill’s credits from her first degree did not transfer to the nursing program, she had to repeat the entire four years of study. (The College of Nursing now offers an intensive 16-month second degree option for those who have a baccalaureate degree in another field.)
Fortunately, Hill had many resources to help her along her new path. She was accepted into the Schreyer Honors College and participated in the Women’s Leadership Initiative in the College of Health and Human Development, where the nursing program was housed at the time. She also took advantage of study abroad experiences in Honduras and Peru. “I wanted to make the most of every opportunity I had in those four years,” she said.
Experiences such as volunteering at a hospice run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Peru sparked an interest in working with older adults. Hill was especially intrigued by the challenges associated with cognitive impairments in this population. She began taking graduate courses and worked on two National Institutes of Health-funded research projects related to interventions for patients with dementia and delirium.
Hill entered the master’s program immediately after receiving her bachelor of science in nursing in 2007, while working part time at Mount Nittany Medical Center. She found herself faced with a choice: Should she continue on a clinical path, or pursue a career in research?
“Ultimately, I felt that research would allow me to best utilize my strengths in order to make the greatest positive impact in the lives of older adults,” Hill said. She completed her master’s degree in 2009 and moved seamlessly into the doctorate program. Her doctoral studies were funded by a fellowship from the National Institute of Nursing Research’s Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award and the John A. Hartford Foundation’s Building Academic Geriatric Nursing Capacity program.
Hill received her doctorate in 2013 and immediately began postdoctoral studies as a Claire M. Fagin Fellow through the National Hartford Center of Gerontological Nursing Excellence. During her fellowship, she worked with researchers in Penn State’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering and Center for Healthy Aging to develop an app to help people living with memory loss manage tasks of daily living.
Based on Hill’s interdisciplinary work, she was one of 50 emerging researchers selected for the National Institute on Aging’s Butler-Williams Scholars Program this summer. Through five days of lectures, seminars, and small-group discussions, this highly competitive program provides participants with an opportunity to explore and develop their interest in research on aging.
Using technology to help others is just one of the ways Hill is devoting her career to improving lives through research.
“I’m always asking: How do we, as researchers and practitioners, keep the individual at the center of the work we’re doing to ensure that we are addressing the needs each person identifies as important?” she asks. “How do we help older adults pursue lives that are meaningful and fulfilling by their own definition?”
These are questions she will undoubtedly address again and again as she prepares the next generation of nurses for their own new beginnings.