When Christie Cavallo, MSN, RN, was growing up in Mississippi, her life revolved around caring for her mother, who had systemic lupus, and her youngest brother, who had a congenital defect.
“We practically lived in hospitals and clinics,” she said. “I felt helpless as a child and in taking care of my mom and helping with my younger brother. I didn’t want to feel helpless. I wanted to feel empowered. Going to nursing school helped me to be like the people I admired who took care of my mother and my brother.”
Cavallo has gone on to empower nursing students with education as an instructor in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Nursing. Her commitment to teaching excellence is being recognized this year with the University of Tennessee Alumni Association Outstanding Teacher Award and the Student Government Association Executive Council Excellence in Teaching Award.
Cavallo said she is “blown away” by the recognition. “My reward has always been when students graduate and I see them succeed and meet them as nurses in the hospital. I’m just as excited as if they were my own biological child.”
Cavallo’s story shows the importance of nursing education during this week when we recognize both National Nurse’s Week and Teacher Appreciation Week.
Becoming a nurse changed Cavallo’s life completely. She grew up in Coahoma County, Mississippi, the daughter of a World War II veteran who left school long before high school to help his family on the farm. Cavallo is a first-generation high school and college graduate, and she is currently pursuing her doctorate in nursing education at Walden University.
After she became a nurse, Cavallo quickly learned that her patients’ greatest need was for education. “It excited me that I could teach someone how they could keep better glucose control or teach someone how to give an insulin shot when they got home,” she said. “The empowerment that I was looking for in nursing, I got.”
As one of the few nurses at her local hospital who had a BSN, Cavallo was often sought out by Delta State University to serve as a preceptor for their BSN students, and she found that she loved teaching. “There is an excitement about seeing someone else understand the value of what they are doing,” she said.
After she attained her master’s degree in nursing education at Walden University, Cavallo and her family moved from Clarksdale, Miss. to Olive Branch, Miss., and she took an instructor position at the UTHSC College of Nursing. She and her husband, Leo, have four children.
“I’ve been very blessed to be attached to UTHSC. Anything I could imagine I would want to do as far as bettering myself, UTHSC allows me to do that, she said.
She is working to attain her doctorate in nursing education so she can have a voice in curriculum design, educational research and advocate for evidence-based teaching practices.
“Ms. Cavallo loves teaching students and cares about their success,” said Sherry Webb, DNSc, RN, CNL, NEA-BC, an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Acute and Tertiary Care in the UTHSC College of Nursing.
“She spends extra time with them outside of class to be sure they understand medication dosage and solutions.”
Cavallo believes strongly in giving back to her community and credits her father for her own volunteer spirit, which she has lived out during the coronavirus pandemic as a regular volunteer at the UTHSC COVID-19 testing call center and by coordinating a blood drive at her church.
“My dad felt a civic duty to his family, others and his country that I never understood until I became a nurse,” she said. “Finding ways to help during this pandemic is from the same call that led me to be a nurse – one of obligation to others, thankfulness for what I have been given, and compassion for my fellow brothers and sisters.”