A GCU Nursing Alumni’s Story

By Dawna Cato, GCU Alumni, Vice President of Clinical Care Services

graduation cap and diploma

At 22 years old, I was a young mother with two children both born with congenital heart defects. I knew I wanted to go to college, and nursing seemed to be an obvious choice so I could understand my children’s condition more fully and better care for them. I started as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) in 1990.

My Academic Journey

After receiving my Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) from a community college in 2001, I had the opportunity to attend GCU on a full scholarship provided by my place of employment. Obtaining my Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from GCU in 2006 provided me the opportunity to expand my sphere of influence and begin teaching clinical in a diploma program. The RN to BSN program elevated my critical thinking skills, introduced me to nursing theories and taught me leadership skills. I really enjoyed the dialogue and collaboration with the instructors, as well as all the students seeking higher education. I also realized that I thoroughly enjoyed teaching and sharing knowledge and wisdom. I enjoyed this so much that I continued with my education and obtained my Master of Science in Nursing with an Emphasis in Nursing Education at GCU in 2009. This launched my career, and soon I became the Director of the Phoenix location of the diploma program in which I previously taught clinical rotations. When this program closed, I was offered a position as the Regional Director of Nursing Education in the multihospital healthcare system where the diploma program was housed.

GCU provided me with the knowledge, skill and attitude to continue my education. I learned how to become a self-directed learner and gained skills in time management, clinical decision-making, prioritization and fostering collegial relationships. The GCU experience gave me confidence in my competence as a nursing instructor and helped me become a true leader and change agent.  I was then confident to continue my education and obtain my PhD. with an emphasis in nursing education in 2013.

My Current Job

Currently, I am a transformational leader at state, national and international levels. I serve in many different areas and apply the skills I’ve acquired through my education and experience in a number of different roles and organizations.


  • Lead for the Arizona Action Coalition to develop, implement and evaluate a statewide nursing residency program.
  • President of the Arizona Nurses Association Special Interest Group.
  • Member of the Education Committee that advises the Arizona State Board of Nursing on nursing education issues and approvals
  • Nurse peer reviewer for the Western Multi State Division of the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) for Continuing Education.
  • Consultant for the Arizona Heart Foundation, where I developed the first ever Cardiovascular Nurse Specialty (CVNS) Program supported by the Arizona Heart Foundation and Arizona College. This is the largest Continuing Education activity ever awarded by the WMSD, and this program launched on January 8th, 2018.


  • Commissioner on Accreditation for the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).


  • Vice President of Clinical Care Services for PreferUS. In this role, I design, implement and evaluate educational programs to support private hospitals in China to redesign care delivery to meet safe quality care standards based on U.S. best practices.
  • International nursing consultant, where I elevate the professional role of Chinese nurses. In Yinchuan China, I successfully implemented a best practice strategy for effective communication. The Situation, Background, Assessment and Recommendation (SBAR) strategy is designed to help elevate communication between Chinese nurses and physicians. We recently presented this work at the International Healthcare Improvement 2017 Summit and will be submitting for publication in the Joint Commission International Patient Safety Journal.
  • I developed the first ever China Chief Nursing Officer (CNO), Management and Clinical Track U.S. Immersion Program. In this program, CNO’s, Management and Clinical personnel travel to America and spend 4 months in U.S. hospitals for experiential learning. This launched recognition of International Nurse Preceptors at two Arizona Hospital Systems.

I love the fact that I can make a difference at local, national and international levels. I am excited that national and global healthcare leaders are moving toward innovation and evidence-based strategies to obtain different outcomes. I also enjoy meeting new people, seeing new places and learning, leaning, learning!

GCU’s Program

I definitely feel that GCU has prepared me for my current job as Vice President of Clinical Care Services. GCU launched my career by providing the knowledge, skill and attitude desperately needed for emerging leaders. At the time I attended GCU, I possessed many years of clinical experience at the LPN and ADN level; however, I never thought of myself as a leader. My BSN provided me an opportunity to lead and those first clinical classes provided the breakthrough. In the state of Arizona, you must have a BSN to teach clinical and a master’s degree to teach didactic. Without that exposure, I would not be doing what I love: teaching, mentoring, supporting, and leading effective change through professional nursing!

The CONHCP at GCU is very distinctive because of its Christian beliefs. The mission of the college is to “find your purpose.” This is the unique quality that sets GCU apart. I have always believed that “God puts me where He needs me to be to do His work”. I have carried this with me as I continue to grow personally and professionally and accept stretch assignments or projects that I have never done before or may not feel confident in completing. Drawing on my GCU experience, I can trust that I am right where I need to be. My confidence increases, knowing I have God with me. Thus, I am willing to take more risks. This has served me well!

Advancing Your Education

Advancing your nursing education is absolutely worth the time and expense. Looking back, the time went very quickly! There are always sacrifices with family, friends and adult obligations; however, you will be supported, and your family and friends will be very proud of your accomplishments. Without my advanced education, I would not have the capability to demonstrate advanced knowledge, skills and attitudes to secure and maintain my multiple roles and responsibilities.

Tips for Students

Study to understand, not to memorize. Recognize that there are three domains of learning; knowledge, skill, and attitude. Now, more than ever, our profession must excel at the core competencies of inter-professional teamwork and collaboration, leadership, professionalism, communication, quality, safety, patient-centered care and evidence-based practice. Having the knowledge, skill and attitude to develop your professional identity will be critical in a “pay for performance” practice arena. Also, commit to life-long learning by continuing your education, either in formal degree programs or continuing education contact hours. Don’t forget to network! Develop strong inter-professional relationships that can support your professional growth. Surround yourself with individuals that inspire you! Join professional organizations that align with your professional specialty and goals. Finally, I highly suggest journaling during your academic preparation, so you can review your “stories” and be prepared to share them during future job interviews.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in nursing, check out GCU’s College of Nursing! Find your purpose through discovering your passion at Grand Canyon University!  Learn more by reading our reviews on US News!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.