Posted on Jan 8, 2022

Trailblazer Spotlight: Dr. Catherine Belden, assistant dean of undergraduate programs

Trailblazer Spotlight: Dr. Catherine Belden, assistant dean of undergraduate programs

Catherine Belden remembers like yesterday the “trial by fire” that was her first year out of nursing school.

A new registered nurse, her first day on the job at a rural hospital in Louisiana, she was assigned as charge nurse to run a 40-bed unit. No workforce development. No coaching. She had to hit the ground running.

“I had no clue what I was doing. I had 40 people’s lives in my hands. I was the only RN. I had to work nights, and there were not a lot of people to ask questions,” she recalled.

“I went home pretty much every night and cried,” she added.

After about a year, she made up her mind to commit herself to improve the profession –to fight for the development of nurses between graduation and the start of practice.

“I decided I will never allow this to happen to another nurse or anyone, if it’s in my power, ever again,” she said.

In Spring 2021, Belden assumed the role of assistant dean of undergraduate programs at USF Health’s College of Nursing after 26 years of working to carry out that lifelong mission, revolutionizing nursing units through extensive experience in clinical care and high-level administrative posts.

The timing couldn’t be more urgent. Her arrival at the College of Nursing coincides with a nationwide crisis in a shortage of nurses, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the college responds to that emergency by overhauling its undergraduate nursing program to help meet what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates is a need for 1.1 million new nurses by 2022.

If anyone is up for that challenge, it’s Belden. After that first taxing year in the workforce, she rose up the ranks into management at a home-health agency and then found herself back at the original rural Louisiana hospital.

There, she instituted a mini-nursing residency in which new nurses could work under her supervision or under other trusted RNs. The unit’s on-the-job training and deep support became so popular that the unit went from being “avoided like the plague,” she said, to being fully staffed and attracting an additional two dozen PRNs. Hospital administrators copied the model to the ICU and for medical-surgical nurses.

From there, leading up to her arrival at USF, Belden has not only held executive-level positions in the post-acute care industry and but also worked as a field surveyor with The Joint Commission. In the academic realm, as an associate professor and director of a new nursing program at William Carey University’s Baton Rouge campus, she built it from six graduates in the first cohort to about 150 students matriculating through and over 50 graduates to date.

Along the way, she earned two doctoral degrees –in nursing education and health sciences–and master’s and bachelor’s degrees in nursing. She also worked for years as an assistant professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

At USF, Belden brings her same passion for workforce development to oversee the college’s undergraduate program and ramping up of its baccalaureate licensure program to help feed new nurses into the workforce pipeline while phasing out the RN to BSN program.

She envisions a prominent place for nurses in health care policy.

“We are one of the largest professions in health care,” she said. “If nurses worked together simultaneously, there is no telling what we can do. We could re-write the face of health care. That’s the power that we have.”

Story by Saundra Amrhein