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Front & Center: From babies to educational excellence, WSU College of Nursing dean has delivered

WSU’s Spokane-based College of Nursing recently was recognized as a “Center of Excellence” in nursing education, one of 15 cited by the National League for Nursing. Dean Joyce Griffin-Sobel heads up the College of Nursing. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU’s Spokane-based College of Nursing recently was recognized as a “Center of Excellence” in nursing education, one of 15 cited by the National League for Nursing. Dean Joyce Griffin-Sobel heads up the College of Nursing. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil For The Spokesman-Review

Joyce Griffin-Sobel remembers the first time someone called her a nurse.

“When I was in college, we had to follow a family through Lamaze class and birth. The family I picked lived in the Bronx, like I did. The hospital where they’d chosen to have the baby was down in Manhattan.

“When I got home one night, my mother was in hysterics. Julie, the mother I was following, had called and was in labor.

“They zoomed to my place. But as soon as I got in the car, I knew she was not going to make it to the hospital. And I had only seen kittens born at that point! I had no hospital experience with this kind of thing.

“There I was, straddling the stick shift trying to help, and I could see the baby’s head.

“Once we reached the hospital, I went screaming into the E.R. And as they helped Julie out of the car, she said, ‘You’re the best nurse I ever had.’ ”

That was more than four decades ago.

Since then, Griffin-Sobel has worked for hospitals, academia and the Navy.

Last year, she was chosen to lead Washington State University’s College of Nursing.

But there’s still more than a hint of that no-nonsense undergrad who kept her head when a new one suddenly appeared in the back seat.

“I always tell people here, ‘Don’t mess with a girl from the Bronx,’ ” Griffin-Sobel jokes.

Her most recent delivery was of an honorary nature. Griffin-Sobel helped WSU’s nursing college achieve “Center of Excellence” status with the National League of Nursing, the only program so recognized in the Northwest.

During a recent interview, Griffin-Sobel discussed her first job, what she learned in the Navy and the memoir she threatens to write.

S-R: What were your interests growing up?

Griffin-Sobel: As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a nurse. When I was young, I loved reading books about nurses. The Cherry Ames series was my favorite. She’d have a different specialty and a different boyfriend in every book, and I thought that was just the greatest lifestyle.

S-R: What was your first job?

Griffin-Sobel: I began working as a checker at an A&P grocery when I was 15, and I’ve been working ever since.

S-R: Where did you attend college?

Griffin-Sobel: All of my degrees are from New York. I earned my bachelor’s at Lehman College in the Bronx. Then I went to Hunter College for my master’s, and New York University for my Ph.D.

S-R: Was there a particular moment that changed the direction of your life?

Griffin-Sobel: Yes. Before being accepted in NYU’s Ph.D. program, I had a two-hour interview with the director. Afterward, she said, “You have what it takes to be a dean.” I was only 28, so that really impressed me.

S-R: Did you have any bad experiences early on in nursing?

Griffin-Sobel: In my day – and it still exists, unfortunately – there was a lot of conflict between nurses and physicians. I believe the cause is that no one understands what the other does. We educate physicians and nurses separately, and then expect them to work together perfectly as a team. They didn’t teach nurses how to advocate for the patient when we are in conflict with physicians. And I’ve got a fiery temper. So when I advocated for patients, I would get into severe arguments with physicians. Now, I make sure all of our students know how to handle situations like that by the time they graduate.

S-R: Did you have a mentor?

Griffin-Sobel: A number of them.

S-R: What’s something they taught you that was particularly helpful?

Griffin-Sobel: Stop before you speak – take a pause. Silence is OK. When you’re in a leadership position, you’re a target. Over my career, faculty have said some outrageous things. It’s important that I remember I’m the job – I’m the dean. What people say is about the job, not about me personally.

S-R: Where has your career taken you?

Griffin-Sobel: I started off in critical care in New York. Next, I moved to California, and was head nurse of a huge intensive-care unit. Then I came back to New York, got my master’s degree, and worked as an instructor at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. After getting my master’s, I went directly on to my doctorate, and wound up taking a job teaching at the University of Hawaii. After two years, I moved on to the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was also in the Naval Reserve, and the Navy asked me to come on to active duty and start a nursing research program. I did that for three years, then came back to New York and bounced back and forth between teaching and practice. Eventually, I settled at Hunter College for 10 years. Before coming here, I was dean for three years at Syracuse, New York – the snowiest place on the planet.

S-R: You can’t seem to hold a job.

Griffin-Sobel: (laugh) I have a very supportive husband, and I’ve always felt you should take the opportunity that’s right for you at that time.

S-R: What does he do?

Griffin-Sobel: Don (Sobel) retired from the New York Stock Exchange and lives on the Upper West Side. I commute back and forth about once a month. He’s a true New Yorker. He never even learned to drive.

S-R: How would you characterize your leadership style?

Griffin-Sobel: When I went into the Navy at midcareer, I expected all sorts of people to order me around, which I don’t do well with. Yet that job is where I had the most freedom. They told me what to do, got as many obstacles out of the way as they could, then left me alone. That approach has stuck with me ever since. I try to help the faculty, staff and students get where they want to be with as few obstacles as possible.

S-R: Recently, WSU’s College of Nursing was recognized as one of 15 centers of excellence among the 1,200 institutions represented by the National League of Nursing. How big a deal is that?

Griffin-Sobel: It’s a real source of pride for our faculty and students. When an institution thinks it has the qualifications to be a center of excellence, it submits a proposal. When I got here last year, I knew I wanted us to go for that. So I led the effort to write this major proposal, focusing on the category of enhancing student learning. Numerous schools apply, but very few are chosen.

S-R: How has nursing education evolved since you entered the field?

Griffin-Sobel: Not enough. We still have too few faculty members. We’re very good here at simulation – both standardized (actor) patients and mannequins – and, to me, that is the future for nursing education, because it’s so realistic, and students learn quickly in a safe environment.

S-R: How has the profession overall evolved?

Griffin-Sobel: Nursing has always struggled with an inferiority complex. That has improved over the 40-plus years I’ve been in nursing, but not enough.

S-R: What is the best thing and the worst thing you can say about the nursing profession today?

Griffin-Sobel: The best thing about nursing today is that we are the answer to public health problems in this country. We are everywhere, and we have the skills to coach patients through all of the chronic diseases that kill people in such huge numbers. The worst thing is that we’re still fighting some of the same, stupid battles, such as should nurses have a bachelor’s degree. The answer is yes. The data shows that patient outcomes are better when you have baccalaureate-prepared nurses. Yet we continue to educate them at the associate-degree level.

S-R: Has the gender ratio among nurses changed over the years?

Griffin-Sobel: We have more male nurses today. But I resent the literature that says it will take men to raise nurses to a higher status. I find that very sexist.

S-R: Are nurses adequately compensated?

Griffin-Sobel: It depends on where you live. In New York City, a nurse with 10 years’ experience makes $150,000. Here, it’s half that, yet the cost of living is not all that much less.

S-R: Has the Affordable Care Act been good or bad for the nursing profession?

Griffin-Sobel: Good, in that it has helped states understand that nurse practitioners should have independent authority. We don’t always need physicians to collaborate on certain treatments.

S-R: What’s your typical schedule?

Griffin-Sobel: I work 12 to 15 hours a day, then go home and continue to work there. One good thing about having my husband 3,000 miles away is that when I’m here, I have nothing else to do but work. And I like that, because I can get so much done.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Griffin-Sobel: The ability to influence how students are educated.

S-R: What do you like least?

Griffin-Sobel: Paperwork.

S-R: You’re a frequent guest lecturer. What’s your favorite topic?

Griffin-Sobel: Cancer, and how to prevent it. Colon cancer is entirely preventable, and yet people don’t get screened.

S-R: Any common misperceptions about nursing?

Griffin-Sobel: The public believes nurses just follow doctors’ orders, and that’s 100 percent wrong.

S-R: What’s the career outlook in nursing?

Griffin-Sobel: The growth opportunity is huge. More than 1 million more nurses will be needed by 2022.

S-R: What challenges does WSU’s College of Nursing face?

Griffin-Sobel: Faculty shortages.

S-R: Could your faculty members earn more practicing instead of teaching?

Griffin-Sobel: Yes, without question. Our salaries are not that high.

S-R: Do all your graduates get job offers?

Griffin-Sobel: One hundred percent. Employers snap them up.

S-R: What’s a starting salary?

Griffin-Sobel: $60,000 to $70,000.

S-R: How much did your bachelor’s degree cost you?

Griffin-Sobel: The City University of New York was free. That’s why I went there.

S-R: What does it cost today at WSU?

Griffin-Sobel: About $35,000.

S-R: What is your greatest virtue?

Griffin-Sobel: I am unbelievably honest.

S-R: Any guilty pleasures?

Griffin-Sobel: Many.

S-R: What’s at the top of your bucket list?

Griffin-Sobel: More time with my husband.

S-R: What is your secret talent?

Griffin-Sobel: I’m a fabulous writer.

S-R: What do your write about?

Griffin-Sobel: Unfortunately, mostly clinical or administrative stuff. But I’ve always threatened to write a book titled “You Can’t Make This Shit Up.” (laugh)

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at

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