Engaged learning opportunities flourish — inside the classroom and out

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From the St. Catherine University Magazine summer 2022 issue. Photos by Rebecca Slater '10 / By Rebecca Studios.

A generous gift by donor Sally Kadifa in 2020 established the Office of Scholarly Engagement (OSE), a centralized hub for engaged learning experiences that joined together five existing programs: Collaborative Undergraduate Research, Antonian Honors, Competitive Fellowships, Global Studies, and Community Work and Learning. OSE complements curriculum, supports higher retention rates, increases rate of success on fellowship applications, and improves post-graduation incomes. It also offers hands-on exploration for students as they become leaders who think critically, innovate, and build connections.

Now, an additional gift from Mary Absolon ’77 has established the Endowed Fund for Health Policy Research by Nursing Students. For over 30 years, Absolon served as a health regulatory and policy expert at the Minnesota Department of Health. Her background as a St Kate’s-educated nurse, she says, was invaluable throughout her career working for improved quality of care in settings such as hospitals, hospice, and long term and assisted living care.

Photo of Mary Absolon

“Through OSE programming and scholarships, we can support St. Kate’s students in learning how to influence our healthcare system through changes in health policy, identifying new regulations, enforcing current ones, developing new laws and tweaks in laws that directly relate to quality of nursing care — so that students can see how the framework relates to their practice as a  nurse,” Absolon says. “Studying and exploring this area in  different  ways  will  position  students  to  have  an  impact and make a difference for people — and health policy is all about making a difference.”

Absolon’s endowment is an exciting crystallization of the interdisciplinary practice that has long taken place through what is now called OSE.

Take, for example, Julia Walquist ’23, a nursing major exploring public health disparities through St. Kate’s Empty Bowls Project,  which merges art and social justice to raise awareness and money for individuals experiencing food insecurity.  In  2021-22  through the  Assistantship Mentoring Program in Community Work and  Learning,  Walquist worked with art faculty member Monica Rudquist to organize Empty Bowls events, partner with Open Arms of Minnesota, and donate funds to the St. Kate’s Food Access Hub. These learning experiences, while not directly connected to the nursing curriculum, have enriched her perspective on health equity and community access to resources.

Headshot of Julia next to a photo of an empty bowls event


“What we talk about in nursing school is that I have a duty to advocate for my patients on an individual level, and  I  have a  duty to advocate for them on a  systemic level to change the policies that put them in this position,”  Walquist says.

“I’ve seen that firsthand through this project, and I’ve seen how far beyond nursing it goes. It’s  not  just advocating for the things that we  think of when we think of healthcare  —  food insecurity  is directly related, even though we maybe don’t immediately think of that.”


Headshot of Anchee next to photo of her presenting

Anchee Nitschke Durben ’24, a public health and data science double major, has also taken advantage of multiple OSE programs to focus on health equity in her studies.  For her most recent project this spring, she conducted research with public health faculty member Elizabeth Allen, PhD, and the interdisciplinary “Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?” (WTDN) team to examine disparities in health outcomes as the result of historical racial covenants.

“Being involved in this project makes me feel like, as the WTDN team, we are living out the St. Kate’s mission by looking at these social justice issues, trying to make change,” Durben says. “It made me feel like I, as a  student, can make a difference in and be connected to my broader community.”

Students like Durben and Walquist, who are already benefiting from OSE intensive engaged learning experiences, are examples of what Absolon means when she describes Katies as “leaders and agents of change.”  Absolon is excited to see possibilities blossom for nursing majors to explore and integrate other health focuses.

“This scholarship will give nursing students the ideas and the confidence that nursing translates to so many other things,” agrees Walquist. “St. Kate’s has a place for nurses to work on other passions and to tie it all together.”