MIRTHA CHAVEZ-LOPEZ arrived in the United States with her young children 22 years ago. She was a lab technician in Cuba but struggled to find work in the U.S. She first worked as a housekeeper and in factories to provide an income for her children while also teaching herself the English language by watching cartoons with her children. Now, as a 53-year-old, after 14 years in the nursing field, she’s chipping away at a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Millersville University—one class at a time—while working full-time nightshift as a medical-surgical nurse at Hershey Medical Center.
RYAN DONNELLY wakes up early in the morning to care for his 2-year-old daughter while his wife goes to work. The couple later swap places as caretakers as Ryan heads out the door for the 3 to 11 p.m. shift as a charge nurse at Lancaster Rehabilitation Hospital. The few remaining hours in the day are spent on classwork. He’s one class away from finishing his bachelor’s degree in nursing, with sights set on a master’s degree, more open doors in his profession and the hopes of increased income.
Chavez-Lopez and Donnelly come from vastly different backgrounds, different life situations and have varied professional goals. Neither of them had ever met the late Liselotte Wehrheim ’74, but because of her generous gift to Millersville University, both can pursue dreams while balancing their families and careers.
In December 2019, Millersville University was surprised to receive a donation of $4.2 MILLION—the largest single gift in the history of the University—from Wehrheim’s estate. She passed away in August 2019 at the age of 103 and was at the time Millersville’s oldest living alumna. The gift adds to the previously established Liselotte R. Wehrheim Scholarship in Nursing Endowment bringing it to $4.8 MILLION. It provides scholarships for nontraditional students who have unusual or special circumstances affecting the completion of their education.
Wehrheim’s gift is now aiding nontraditional Millersville nursing students, just like she was at one time. She lived a fascinating life before graduating from Millersville with a bachelor’s degree in nursing at the age of 59. She studied nursing in Germany, France and England, and moved to the U.S. in 1954. With her fluency in five languages, she worked as an interpreter for the U.S. State Department. At the age of 54, she became a nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. She pursued and earned a bachelor’s degree by taking night classes.
She dedicated her life to serving others, and her gift ensures that the service continues.
The gift couldn’t have come at a better time. In a world consumed by a global pandemic, healthcare professionals are in high demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for nurses is expected to grow seven percent in the next decade—faster than the average of all occupations.
“Nursing is one of the few growing areas in the job market,” says Dr. Kelly Kuhns, Nursing Department Chair at Millersville. “Nurses got a lot of press during the pandemic. It is predicted that by 2025 there could be a half-million shortage of nurses. The job market for nursing is significant. Nurses don’t just work in hospitals; they work in prisons and schools, everywhere.”
Nurses with the additional knowledge and training that comes from a bachelor’s degree are especially in high demand. Kuhns stated that the national goal is to have 80% of bedside nurses hold a bachelor’s degree. Presently, about 59% of all nurses have a bachelor’s degree. About 40% of all nurses start their careers with an associates degree—that’s why programs like Millersville’s RN to BSN degree completion program are so important.
“Currently, in the healthcare environment, getting a BSN is becoming the expectation,” said Kuhns. “A lot of local institutions have a requirement that nurses have their BSN within three to five years of hire. That is related to evidence we have that increasing the number of BSN nurses at bedsides improves patient outcomes. The additional benefit is the ability to continue on to a master’s degree or a doctoral degree, which allows you to progress through that professional trajectory and advance beyond the bedside. As a profession, we need to keep building our intellectual capital. This is how we continue to evolve and improve care for our patients.”
“The additional content knowledge, technical skills and professional skills students gain by pursuing a BSN degree will help prepare them for the evolving healthcare environment, one that is increasingly complex, with nurses having greater responsibilities included as part of their professional roles,” says Dr. Mike Jackson, Dean of the College of Science and Technology at Millersville University.
“Ms. Wehrheim’s generosity not only established a scholarship that assists our students to pursue their education, but as graduates, they serve as qualified, trained members of the healthcare profession,” says Jackson.
Because Millersville’s program requires all students to already be a registered nurse (RN) or eligible for licensure, nearly all of the nursing students balance school with full-time careers and families. Life often presents financial challenges and unexpected surprises that delay or completely halt students’ progress toward degree completion. The Wehrheim endowment, however, assists those students significantly.
“We’ve been able to use the Wehrheim funds in a very targeted manner, when we’ve had students who’ve said, ‘I can’t come back to school because I’m taking care of my dad and I had to cut my hours.’ We can say, ‘we have this special fund, and we can help you with that,’” says Kuhns. “Now with this amazing gift, we can help even more students. In fall 2020 alone, we were able to provide scholarships to more than 60 students.”
Every admitted student can fill out an online form, and if they are over 25 years old, they will assuredly receive some assistance. The average amount in 2020 was $850 per student, while some with extraordinary circumstances received far more. Kuhns recounts a story of a student who wanted to return to Millersville to finish his final 15 credits but believed he could not because his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. The department decided to fully fund the student’s tuition and was able to because of the Wehrheim endowment—just how she hoped her gift to be used.
For Donnelly, the Wehrheim funds have allowed him to keep his options for future employment open as well as take reduced hours to care for his daughter and focus on education.
“The scholarship that I got has helped me be able to do that because there is less cost going toward my tuition,” says Donnelly. “It’s allowed me to not have to work as much so I can spend some time with my family and focus more on class that I wouldn’t have been able to.”
For Chavez-Lopez, the scholarship has offset taxes and fees, which are not covered by her tuition reimbursement program. Forced to completely start over when she arrived in the U.S., she accumulated more than $40,000 in loans in pursuit of diplomas as a single mother. Her career pursuits and family obligations prevented her from becoming a full U.S. citizen, and that decreased her opportunity for student loans and scholarships. Before becoming fluent in English, searching for scholarships, writing essays and filling out paperwork required for scholarship application proved challenging. That’s why she’s so grateful that her instructors at Millersville approached her about the Wehrheim funds.
“Taking that stress away from me and my children, to not have to pay back the interest on top of what I would have had to borrow was a blessing,” says Chavez-Lopez. “I was able to take a class without pressure and save that money to fix my house and use the money for the needs I have here every month. I’m glad that Dr. Kuhns selected me because I appreciate it. I don’t take those little things for granted since I’ve had to come from zero several times.”
Wehrheim believed in the value of education. She was quoted in a 2008 Review article as saying, “you are never too old to learn,” and that’s an identical sentiment that Chavez-Lopez learned from her mother, who spent her life as a teacher in Cuba.
“Learning is the freedom of a human being,” says Chavez-Lopez. “I always had in the back of my head that working hard was how you open doors … I’m happy that I can continue my education … I can say nothing but good things about our professors. They understand that we have a life. They told me about the scholarship, and they really help the students.”
“At my very core, I’m a student advocate,” says Kuhns. “The opportunity to say to a student, ‘I know this is a difficult time, and I know you are a single mom, but if we can give you $1,000, would that help you finish your degree?’ is the ultimate for me. It gives us the opportunity to help people achieve a dream that I think is vitally important to our profession.”
The lives of Chavez-Lopez and Donnelly are just two of dozens who Wehrheim has touched and will continue to impact.
“Ms. Wehrheim joined Millersville University to pursue an education that would allow her to better serve individuals in her care,” says Jackson. “She continues to positively impact our community through her immense generosity in establishing this endowed scholarship.” u