Each summer, the Office of Alumni Relations opens up the nomination period for Alumni of Distinction; the highest award alumni can receive from the university. Nominations roll in from all corners of Seawolf Nation—down the street or across the country—but rarely do students lead the charge.
Georgia DeKeyser’s nomination for the 2015 Alumni Humanitarian award came from a few of the tens of thousands of students under her guidance as director of UAA’s Student Health and Counseling Center (SHCC). For a woman who’s dedicated her career to the health of college students, just the student-led nomination was enough to bring a tear to her eye (though winning the award was a nice bonus, too).
Georgia stands at the helm of UAA’s health center, overseeing a staff of medical experts (including several other UAA alumni), their innovative public health initiatives and a system of care specially crafted for college students. The SHCC looks like any clinic in the country—charts on the wall, scales in the rooms, a rack of US Weeklys in the waiting area. The big difference is the patients—every student taking six or more credit hours in a semester can stop by any time at no charge. General visits are already paid for through student fees, and any extra screenings come at a fraction of the cost of outside care. All told, the SHCC has a possible pool of over 10,000 patients on any given day.
As a UAA alumna, Georgia knows the student situation well, including all its financial and mental challenges. In fact, she even got her start in the department as a student intern and now, nearly 20 years later, she’s the director of the whole operation.
A very extended vacation
Hailing from a small farm town in southern Minnesota, Georgia was geographically blessed in her proximity to the Mayo Clinic, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers. She enrolled in nursing school at an affiliated college and completed her clinical rotations in the Mayo Clinic hospitals.
After earning her nursing degree, she and her husband decided to add a little adventure to their lives by spending a year in Alaska. “We were in our mid-20s and we kind of thought of it as an adventure,” she said of the decision.” Three children and three decades later, Georgia and her husband are still happy to be extending that one-year jaunt to the North. “It truly was an adventure,” she laughed.
After a brief career in stressful emergency rooms and intensive care units, Georgia opted to take a break from the nursing field to focus on her young family. Eventually, though, her husband encouraged her to head back to school, just one class at a time. So she enrolled in a master’s level nursing program at UAA and kept a slow and steady pace. Georgia earned her family nurse practitioner degree from UAA in 1997, and a second master’s as a psychiatric nurse practitioner in 1999. She’s been at the university ever since.
For years, she balanced family and education. Now, the kids are grown (two even entered the medical field), she’s an affiliated professor in the School of Nursing, serves as a mentor for current nursing students and sits as the director of the department that first welcomed her as an intern. Clearly, her Green and Gold roots run deep.
As a former Seawolf, Georgia is perfectly placed to understand and administer to the health needs of UAA students. Furthermore, she’s an excellent representative of what one student internship can lead to.
A focus on student health
Things have changed since Georgia’s original internship. The student body has grown, the campus has extended and the health center has kept pace. The clinic, located in Rasmuson Hall, has nearly doubled in size since Georgia first arrived at UAA and the scope of services has expanded even further. Last school year, the SHCC provided nearly 15,000 student appointments, a 33 percent leap from the school year before.
Nurses practitioners at the bright, busy health center can assess, diagnose and prescribe medications. Aside from physicals and ailments, though, the center also provides counseling and mental health services. The college environment provides a valuable setting for counselors like Georgia. Students are transitioning to a new way of life, and everything from stress and relationships to identity and spirituality can affect a student’s wellbeing. Newfound freedoms come into play as well—“Students are emancipating from their parents for the first time, and I always try to remind students that parents are trying to get used to this idea, too,” Georgia laughed.
“Through my years of being a nurse, I’ve realized you can’t separate out mental health,” Georgia said, reflecting on how physical wounds can heal even while mental wounds deepen. “I think how we’re doing emotionally is a really important part of who we are.” Overall, she believes the dynamics of college are significant and should be part of the health conversation.
Student-centered collaborative care, in Georgia’s eyes, is what sets SHCC apart. “If a student were to go to Providence Hospital, they would be treated for a sore throat and maybe the provider would ask ‘How are you doing in school?’” she explained. “Here, we’re always asking ‘How’s it going in class? Are you caught up? Where are you successful? Where are you challenged?’ That’s why we’re here. We are here to help students be successful in school.” (That being said, UAA’s proximity to Providence, Alaska’s largest hospital, is an additional boon when a quick referral is needed).
“Wind in the sails”
Georgia is receiving this year’s Alumni Humanitarian award, and she takes the recognition to heart. “I’m very humbled, but excited to speak about what the university means to me, not only as a student who was able to go to school here, but as somebody who was able to work here for 18 years,” she said. Her message is one of encouragement, support and the recognition that UAA’s students face a wide array of challenges.
“When I went back to graduate school, I really didn’t have the confidence to complete such an undertaking,” she said. “We had three little kids and my husband just said, ‘Take a class see how it goes.’ All I needed was a babysitter and an encouraging spouse. That’s all I needed. I’m going to talk about other students and what they need.”
The challenges facing UAA students are substantial, and often unexpected. Some students need food (the SHCC distributed nearly 3,000 meals last school year through food cards or food bags, a 42 percent jump from the year before). Some need money (the Green & Gold Gala, where Georgia will receive her award, has raised nearly $330,000 for student scholarships in the last five years). In 2013, 46 percent of SHCC patients claimed they had no other available health care options, while 85 percent reported the treatment they received helped them be more successful in school.
Georgia is passionate about helping students succeed, and health is often a major roadblock for many students. That’s the message she wants to share with the alumni and friends who will gather at the Alaska Airlines Center on Sept. 26 when she receives her award. Students have a strong advocate in Georgia. It’s fitting that her nomination came from the student body as well.
“We can’t do it all, but we can add just a little wind in the sails,” she said.
Gear up for #GalaUAA by following the Office of Alumni Relations on Facebook.
Attend Green & Gold Gala on Sept. 26, 2015 and help raise money for the UAA Alumni Scholarship Endowment. Tables and individual tickets are available online.
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement