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New WSU College of Nursing Dean Mary Koithan on taking over in time of coronavirus: ‘I look at it as an opportunity’

The University of Arizona's Mary Koithan will take over as dean of the Washington State University College of Nursing in summer 2020. (WSU)

America’s nurses had not yet been thrown onto the front lines of a battle against a viral pandemic when Mary Koithan began pursuing the job of leading Washington State University’s nursing college.

But the longtime nursing educator and current associate dean of student support and community engagement at the University of Arizona believes now may be the perfect time to reach a new generation of potential nurses, and teach them the skills needed for this and the next public health emergency.

“It’s challenging for faculties and students,” Koithan said in a phone interview last week, referring to nursing instruction at a time when classes are taking place exclusively online. “I think, going forward, I look at it as an opportunity.”

Koithan, 64, will take over as head of a college that recently recognized its 50th anniversary, and has continually pushed for more instruction to occur in simulated settings. That allows nursing students, numbering in the hundreds in the undergraduate ranks each year, to prepare to practice in stressful situations. Say, a cardiac arrest, or treating the symptoms of a spreading respiratory virus.

“Simulation gives us the opportunity to execute a lot of nursing skills and behaviors, and clinical decision-making, that oftentimes we don’t have the ability to in the real world,” she said. “We can’t stage a pandemic in the real world, usually.”

Growing up in what she called a “traditional” family, Koithan said her father offered her three career paths as a young girl: a nurse, a teacher or a secretary.

“I loved science, particularly biology,” she said. “ We used to have imaginary classrooms in my neighborhood, when I was growing up, and I’d pretend to be the teacher. This seemed like a perfect mix.”

Koithan earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Cincinnati, and a master’s degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her doctorate is from the University of Colorado, and she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Arizona’s College of Medicine.

She will assume the position of dean on July 1, and take over for Mel Haberman, a longtime instructor and alumnus of the first WSU College of Nursing graduate class.

“Mary is joining us at an opportune time – in the midst of exciting collaborations with our colleges of medicine and pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences,” Haberman said in a statement. “I am confident in her ability to leverage this momentum and further strengthen our relationships with our many valued health care and community partners.”

Koithan said she wanted to assure those students who planned to begin their coursework this fall that the college, which is headquartered in Spokane and includes instruction in Yakima, the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla, Puyallup and Vancouver, would be prepared to assist them through training in a vital profession when classes commence.

“It was nurses who rose to the top of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and who helped to man the MASH units in Vietnam,” Koithan said. “It’s nurses who have always said, ‘I want to help.’ ”