Portraits of Mentorship: Dr. Karen Bankston & Sara Burke on Nurses' Impact


In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, Dr. Karen Bankston and Sara Burke of the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing squeezed me into their busy schedules. The enthusiasm they carried about their impressive careers and hope for the future was felt throughout the room. “It’s not your mother’s nursing school,” Dr. Bankston says as she reflects on the differences of nursing education through the years. While some aspects have stayed the same, both of these women find their passion in driving change beyond hospital walls.

Interview by Ellen Huggins. Photography by Chelsie Walter.  

Tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you stumbled into this career path.

Dr. Karen Bankston: I’m an associate dean here at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing – a role I’ve held for five and a half years – but that will be ending in about five days as I move to a new role. I'll still be a professor here, part time, so that I can still work with people like Sara and others. I've been a nurse for 44 years. Most of my career has been in hospital and nursing administration. I have a passion for working with people and because of that, I've spent a lot of my time assisting and facilitating others to really meet their career goals. I enjoy that. One of the things that the roles that I've held has allowed me to do is meet a lot of great individuals like Sara, who I met about three years ago.

Sara Burke: And I'm a Ph.D. student here at University of Cincinnati College of Nursing, and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholar. I'm in my last year of my Ph.D. studies and I've been a nurse for about 10 years. Why I'm a nurse...the simple answer is that my mom is a nurse and I knew I wanted to do something really good. So now, 10 years in, I want to make a difference but I'm not quite as focused as Dr. Bankston.

I want to make an impact somewhere and I’m still trying to figure out where. We're nurses by trade. We get involved with other people for a bigger change.

Dr. Bankston: That's exactly right. And that's why I'm transitioning into another position, the executive director of the Child Poverty Collaborative. I don't think that we oftentimes recognize how we have a skillset that can take us beyond what people traditionally think about when they think about nurses – they think about individuals who take care of sick people. What we know and what I've tried to encourage Sara to think about, because she's got the passion for it, is that we also have a significant role to play in advocacy and areas of justice.

Spending most of my career in administration, I tend to look at how we connect all of those things for the benefit of people. Historically, nurses are taking care of people who are sick. I know because of the changes that are going on in the demographics of our country that we have to begin to transform nursing and begin to think about who is able to afford it.

We need folks like us who really care about people and the country to really get engaged. We both believe that that can happen. That's why I love her so much; she's willing to step down. She asks the questions and challenges, and that's what needs to happen in order for this transition to occur.


Tell us how you both came to build this relationship that you have now.

Sara: Due to my scholarship [laughs]. Part of the contract for me is that we will have some sort of leadership seminar. One of my colleagues has the same scholarship that I do, and the two of us together were paired with Dr. Bankston. You can really get down to so much more of a personal level when it's such an intimate setting, and a lot of these really deep and thought provoking conversations came around. It's a lot easier to get help in that role when you do get that one-on-one time. It started off as something that was mandatory, but it's something that we have decided to continue because my colleague and I both have found it so beneficial. She's so approachable, which is sometimes rare when it comes to the leaders of her caliber.

Dr. Bankston: I kept telling them, “I just really like you. You're so bright. I want to play a role in helping to craft your future. So let's just keep this thing going. Just come on over to the house.” We were able to begin to have discussions not just that their scholarships required, but also about their personal lives and what their intentions are related to the future. It really is about pouring into people. Especially in a field like this, where it can be really hard to make it through, nurses don't oftentimes mentor one another.


Dr. Bankston, how would you describe the difference between the nursing field from when you were a student to the way it is now?

Dr. Bankston: There are some things that are the same, and there are some things that are very, very different, and some of the things that are the same are very sad. One of the things is that some of the racial disparities that existed when I was a student still exist today – and that is very sad.

When I was a student nurse, there were only four or five of us, Mexican or African American students, in the class. In today's classes across the country, that's about still the same number. With students graduating, the gap is still the same. That part is very sad and it was very isolating as a student. I do a lot of work here as we try to create an environment of inclusive excellence. It's tough. It was tough in 1976 when I graduated from nursing school and it's tough here in 2017, because even with all of the technological advances and things, we still have these huge social, emotional, and psychosocial issues that are getting in the way of people really being able to come out on the other end in a better place.

What's different is that, when I graduated from nursing school, people cared less about what the nurse wrote, what we said, or anything like that – we really were “handmaidens.” The physician was king, and I say “king” because there very few female physicians at that particular point in time. That is not the case today. The role of the nurse is much more significant in the workplace. Now, unfortunately, there are many nurses who don't understand the significance of their role in advocating for the people that they serve. Whether it's the patient or it's another colleague, they have a very significant role. Nursing is the backbone of good of the whole system. Nurses don't oftentimes recognize that, but that is a significant difference between when I graduated from nursing school and started working and nurses who are graduating today.

The idea of being able to critically think and utilize those thinking skills to be used for decision making and so forth is very much a part of what nurses do today. Courses are absolutely still the same. There’s not much changing because the body is the body. Anatomy, physiology, and chemistry haven't changed. It's still hard. But the way we think about it, that's what's changed, and the value we bring to the table.

Physicians have more traditionally focused on the diagnosis. “What is wrong with this patient? What needs to be done to get better?” Really, what we've learned as nurses is all of these environmental factors. It's not just physical factors; it's environmental factors that lead people into illness, and so it's not just something as simple as a medication or diet or exercise.

I think that we've made that connection more recently. I really want to do something about this environment that's created this gap. In particular, here in Hamilton County and the impact poverty is having on so many people and their inability to live, work, play, and thrive.


Sara, describe how you think that your experience would be different without having a mentor like Dr. Bankston.

Sara: I feel like I'm a passionate person, but passion without guidance is a little bit of a lost soul. I probably received mentoring on not quite as organized of a level earlier in my career and in my undergraduate. Once I came here, it stopped being so vague. You start actually planning your attack, like where are you going to go in your career or where you’re going to make the most impact.

That's where the mentorship piece has been most valuable for me because, first of all, Dr. Bankston is the type of person who hasn't stayed within the confines of nursing. I feel very passionate that that's what we have to do to make the most impact: to talk to other people and to get a team for everybody to put ideas together and solve problems, especially these big public policy problems.

So actually seeing somebody do it has been huge for me.


Tell us about any other important mentors you've had in your life, whether that's professional or personal.

Dr. Bankston: I've had a couple that are really, really important. One was early in my nursing career; her name was Ruth Eldridge. She saw something in me I didn’t see in myself and provided me with my early promotions. She always said, “You’re gonna be big one day.” and I’m like, “Really?” I was an emergency room nurse at the time and next thing I know, I’m managing and then directing, and it was because of her. She took me under her wing in helping me to think through the importance of nursing as a profession. She was one of those leaders; she felt very strongly about being a part of a professional organization. I grew up in that type of environment of recognizing the importance that nurses play in the public space. That was a part of my DNA from the very beginning, and I will be forever grateful to her.

The other person is Ken Hanover. Ken was the CEO of the Health Alliance of Greater Cincinnati. It’s because of him that I received promotions, all the way up to a CEO. He really thought I could do anything. I was the senior vice president of government relations in the Health Alliance for a while. We had hospitals in Columbus, D.C., Frankfurt, and the people of Frankfurt weren’t used to seeing a black woman. Ken would tell me, “Karen, I want you to do this,” and I used to say to him, “Ken, these people in the room, they’re all like you; they’re all white men with white hair. So you need to go. I’ll tell you what to say. You just go and I’ll be there, sitting next to you and I’ll tell you what to say.” He said, “No, you go; you represent the Health Alliance. I don’t need to go. They’re just gonna have to get used to seeing you.” So to be comfortable in my own skin and being comfortable in that space, being me, is because of him. I’ll be forever grateful to him.

Sara: [To Dr. Bankston.] I don't know if you realize how big of a role you played for me. It’s safe to say you have been huge. For a lot of reasons. First of all, you have been very successful in your career, and that's what everybody strives for. I know everybody has their own personal definition. Not only have you been successful, but you have been able to transcend nursing in order to get the things done that you want to get done. In addition, the way that you carry yourself: You're very humble, but you have all of this knowledge. When we talk to you, I'm sure you just want to tell us what to do. But that's never how it comes off; it’s the Socratic method in asking those questions and guiding us, more than anything. Every time we talk to you, we always come away with something.

Another person who has really been beneficial to me professionally is a lady that was my mentor when I was going through the master's program. Susan Bischel is a nurse, and when I was starting to get interested in nursing education – because right now one of my passions is changing things, like changing nursing education – she was like my first spark about nursing education because that's what she's very passionate about. In fact, she's a consultant for nurses and tries to get them ready for their licensure. I think her passion was contagious and I caught some of that.

But also really my parents, I know that's cliché, but there were five of us. They were told they couldn’t have kids and they ended up adopting three special needs children. And then they had my brother. And then me. They had their hands full. The older I get, the more I realize how important that is and how tough a job that must have been to stay consistent all the time and work full time. Dr. Bankston and I and some of the other Ph.D. students have talked about how important knowing who you are and bringing your values and your personal ethics with you into your leadership roles are, and that's all my parents.

Read the other stories from the Portraits of Mentorship series: Mandy Shoemaker & Alesha Hamilton and Dr. Jane Sojka & Hannah Fereshtehkhou