As a little girl in Germantown, Tennessee, Laura Phelps thought she’d grow up to become a firefighter.
“I don’t know where the idea came from,” says Phelps, laughing. “I always liked helping people. I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
In high school, Phelps excelled in her health science classes. Her teachers suggested she consider nursing. In the hospital, she could put out figurative fires and save lives every day.
“By the time it came to pick colleges, nursing felt like my calling,” says Phelps, who graduates this week with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
In the next months, Phelps will move to Nashville for her first job as a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at Saint Thomas Midtown. The time feels right after completing her clinical hours in the cardiovascular ICU at UT Medical Center, where patients in respiratory distress were being tested for COVID-19. With the virus still spreading, she can jump right in and make an impact.
“I’m thankful for the experience—that I could see firsthand what nurses were doing,” Phelps says. “It has definitely strengthened my desire to go in and do what I can to help people get better.”
When she arrived at UT four years ago, Phelps knew she would have to complete two years’ worth of prerequisites before she could immerse herself in nursing classes. She couldn’t wait that long. While volunteering at Knoxville’s Love Kitchen, she learned about the Precious Prints Project, a Student Nurses Association initiative launched in 2011 by Lynne Miller, a clinical instructor in the College of Nursing.
The project has provided more than a thousand families grieving the loss of a child with a silver pendant bearing their child’s fingerprint. The pendants are created by a local company, Precious Metal Prints, and distributed by area hospitals.
“Students go in and teach the nurses how to make the prints, and they sometimes get to meet the families receiving them,” Miller says. “They learn about service, grieving, and what they’ll be doing every day as nurses.”
Phelps joined SNA during her freshman year then volunteered to serve on the Precious Prints Committee for her sophomore year. A year later, when the college added an academic service–learning requirement, she spent 30 hours each semester under Miller’s guidance before being named the project’s philanthropy chair for her final year at UT.
“Laura has had opportunities most students will never access,” Miller says. “She’s traveled to other colleges and universities to represent UT. When she speaks, you want to listen to what she’s talking about. Her passion really comes through.”
During Phelps’s time as a student, the project has expanded to nine East Tennessee hospitals and created new academic partnerships with Union University in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Phelps has led training sessions for nurses at local hospitals and traveled to teach the Union and UNLV nursing students how to launch their own Precious Prints projects.
“You go all across the country, and you realize loss and grief are everywhere,” Phelps says. “From Tennessee we can make a big impact.”
Her junior year Phelps, a member of the Chi Omega sorority, served as the UT chapter president of Global Medical Training, an organization providing medical and dental services in countries where health care access is lacking. Over two winter breaks, she traveled to set up health care clinics in schoolhouses and churches in rural communities in the Dominican Republic and Panama.
“On these trips, you realize you can provide so much care without all of the resources you may have at home,” says Phelps, who assessed patients with local doctors and other nursing, pre-med, and pre-health students. “You may be providing care for a family of eight people, sometimes from a baby all the way up to a grandparent. It’s hands-on learning, not just out of a textbook.”
Miller has watched Phelps come full circle, from a young student volunteering with SNA to one of its leaders. This spring, Phelps received the UT Outstanding Student Award from the Tennessee Nurses Association. When she graduates, she will be honored with a gold medallion from UT’s Jones Center for Leadership and Service for volunteering more than 225 hours during her time at the university—one of 73 graduating students to earn the highest level of service recognition .
When Miller thinks about her time teaching and serving with Phelps, she recalls a memory from last September’s Sprint for the Prints 5K, an SNA fundraiser to support the Precious Prints Project. Before the race started, Miller stood with Phelps and other members of the philanthropy team to observe a moment of silence. In that moment, she thought about everyone at the race that day: the grieving, who came together to remember the children they lost, and the students who gave hours of their days to honor those losses.
“There you had it, right in front of you, your effort coming to fruition,” Miller says. “What Laura has done while at UT has mattered.”
Phelps wasn’t born a Volunteer. She came to UT only because her health science teachers told her if she wanted the best nursing education she could find in Tennessee, she would have to move across the state to Knoxville. However, in four years, she has come to embody the Volunteer spirit.
“As a nurse, you show up, even though it’s scary,” Phelps says. “Volunteers do the same. You come together in times of need. You show up for each other.”
This spring, the university will award 4,625 degrees—3,415 undergraduate degrees, 1,014 graduate degrees and certificates, 117 law degrees, and 79 veterinary medicine degrees. Additionally, 14 Air Force cadets and 17 Army cadets will be commissioned. Although in-person commencement ceremonies in May had to be postponed for safety, UT plans to honor 2020 graduates on campus in person as soon as it’s safe. See the commencement website for details.
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)