Category Archives: Alumni Career Spotlights

Pageants, Prison and Pediatrics; A Spotlight on Nursing Alumna Catherine Whittaker


Whittaker serving in a retirement home after winning Ms. Utah Senior. Photos courtesy of Whittaker.

By Corbin Smith

Jesus Christ once taught, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” Christ went on to illustrate this concept by sharing a story we all know and love: The Good Samaritan. While on a trip to Jerico, a Jewish man was robbed, beaten and abandoned by a group of thieves. While a priest and a Levite passed by this dying man without offering any help, a Samaritan, someone who had likely struggled due to social discriminations, stopped and helped nurse the injured man back to help. That example of service and compassion is exactly how BYU nursing alumna Catherine Whittaker (AS ’74) has lived her life since she was a young woman.

Catherine Whittaker was born and raised in Provo, Utah. Ever since her first breath, Whittaker has recognized the positive impact nurses have had on her life. When Whittaker was born sick and pre-mature, it was her mother, who was a professionally trained nurse, along with many other nurses that saved her when the doctors said it was unlikely she would survive. Later on in life, when her father left when she was 17 years old, she was charged with caring for her six younger siblings alongside her mother. These experiences as a teenager inspired Whittaker to come to BYU and study to be a nurse in 1972.

Since her days at the Y, she has been a registered nurse for 45 years in various medical specialties and settings, from labor and delivery to maternal fetal medicine. Incredibly, she has personally helped bring over 3,000 babies into the world. With all of her experience in the field of nursing, she says that she has learned two major lessons that have guided her life.

First, that service is based off of love. While working in labor and delivery, Whittaker had a personal experience with a close friend. As her friend got closer to the due date of her third child, various complications arose due to the Rh factor in her blood. Hours later, a beautiful 8 ½ pound stillborn baby was born. Whittaker was able to be with her friend in those heart-wrenching moments to comfort and lift her dear friend. Even though it is hard, Whittaker recognizes the impact of a caring nurse in the face of tragedy. “I love being able to have intimate experiences with each patient and their families, it really helps you love each person you serve” says Whittaker.


Whittaker (far right), along with three fellow Ms. Senior America contestants. 

Second, when asked how nursing has set her up for lifelong service she says, “It gave me confidence in myself and allowed me to come out of my shell.” Whittaker is a woman of many talents and titles. In 2018, Whittaker was named Ms. Utah Senior America and was the 3rd runner-up at the Senior Nationals pageant. Together with that honor, she was presented the 2019 Mother of Achievement award, recognizing the impact she has made outside of her family.

Whittaker also spends a lot of time in prison! She is part of “Real Transitions” that helps women transition from prison to society, as well as she serves with her husband in a branch presidency in the Utah State prison. “Whether you are preparing a prescription for a patient or serving people in your community” says Whittaker, “you must be confident in yourself at all times.”


Whittaker visits with a US Navy veteran.

Florence Nightingale once said, “I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel.” In a great piece of advice given from Whittaker to current nursing students she says, “Be creative. Do what you love. Serve how you love.” It doesn’t matter if she is on stage, in the hospital or with her husband John and dog Bojo at home, she truly is a hero to all.


Graduating from the Classroom to the Delivery Room

By Calvin Petersen

Perhaps more than anything, graduation is a time for questions. Those graduating ask questions like: Will I get more sleep now? What am I going to do with my life? Will I live where I want to? Will I find a job? Will I be any good at it?

Those who aren’t graduating yet ask: Will I get more sleep now? What am I going to do with my life? How can I be ready for graduation when it’s my turn? Will I be prepared for the real world?

Larissa Black, who graduated from the BYU College of Nursing last December, is evidence that some of these questions really do have answers.

The New Nurse on the Unit

Larissa is from Tomball, Texas, and has a pair of fake cowboy boots and a love of barbecue to prove it. After graduating and conquering the NCLEX, Larissa began her job as a labor and delivery nurse at the University of Utah Hospital.

“My patients come in pregnant and they leave with a baby. That’s the best way to describe it,” says Larissa.

However, the transition from college student to full-time nurse hasn’t been as seamless as Larissa had hoped.

“Starting my career has been difficult because I feel like I’m trying to figure out a million things at once,” she says. Those million things include learning a charting system she’s never used before, remembering policies specific to her hospital and a long list of things to check for every patient. Larissa found that one of the best ways to take on her tasks is simply observing how others do it.

Larissa works closely with three nurses who take turns training her. “Everything always gets done,” she says, “but they go about it a little bit differently.” Seeing the nurses’ different methods for doing things gives Larissa the opportunity to decide for herself which practices are most effective and which ones aren’t. By taking the best practices together, Larissa will already have an efficient routine when she finishes her training.


A Labor of Love (or a Love of Labor)

Since she sees people “at their worst” every day, Larissa has frequent opportunities to practice the Healer’s art and demonstrate compassion.

“The most important thing is to be kind and non-judgmental,” she says. “Besides the physical tasks of nursing, like hanging medications and taking vital signs, there is a side of nursing that’s about helping someone to heal emotionally and spiritually. It’s easy to forget that aspect, but remembering it is so important in helping people.”

It was out of a desire to help people that Larissa initially decided to become a nurse. She’s also fascinated with the human body and even watched ‘Untold Stories of the ER’ when she was younger.

“I was really lucky to be one of the few who knew what they wanted to do from the beginning,” she says. “I never had to change my major.”

Her passion for women’s health made labor and delivery a natural fit for Larissa. Of her experience in the L&D unit so far, she says, “I just love it, it’s amazing! And it never gets old. Every time I’m with a patient and am able to be there when she has her baby, it is 100 percent the coolest thing ever, every single time.”


Reflections on Nursing School

Something Larissa wishes she would have done while still in school is work in a hospital part-time.

“I’ve noticed that my cohorts who worked as CNAs or phlebotomists or medical assistants in some aspect are much more comfortable with the way that hospitals and clinics run because they’ve been there. They’re already used to it, so when they graduate they’re just stepping up into a different role.”

Nevertheless, one of the most valuable experiences Larissa had at BYU was working as a TA in the simulation lab. Each semester she set up and administered simulation labs, as well as voiced the manikins during simulations.

“That helped me in so many ways,” Larissa explains, “I saw simulations several times, so now if I ever have a patient who shows certain signs and symptoms, I’ll remember what to do.” Her job also led to lasting friendships with faculty and peers.

When asked what she does for fun outside of work, Larissa laughed and said, “Sleeping.” Apparently, even after the stress of homework and finals are long gone, sleep is still a rare commodity.

Larissa doesn’t have all the answers and still isn’t sure what her future holds. However, she’s never forgotten what her capstone preceptor often said, “Larissa! Slow down. You don’t have to walk that fast.” This response to Larissa’s constant power-walking to and from patient rooms has become a mantra for her life. “Just slow down,” Larissa says, “It’s okay. Take a deep breath, everything is fine. Eat a snack if you need a snack. Take care of yourself and then go take care of others.”


Volunteers at BYU Craft 301 Yarn Wigs for Children Battling Cancer

By Calvin Petersen

More than 500 people sacrificed sleep and St. Patrick’s Day plans to make yarn wigs for child cancer patients at the Magic Yarn Project’s largest-ever wig workshop. Co-hosted by the Magic Yarn Project and BYU College of Nursing, the event on March 17 was the second workshop of its kind.

“No one leaves these workshops without a smile on their face or without feeling like their simple act of love will make the world a better place. I love being able to witness that in their countenances,” said Holly Christensen, BYU alumna and co-founder of the Magic Yarn Project.


The Magic Yarn Project began in 2015 when Christensen crafted a yarn Rapunzel wig for her friend’s daughter, who had lost much of her hair in chemotherapy. Now three years later, the Magic Yarn Project has made the world a better place for over 7,000 children battling cancer in 36 countries. Each of these children has received a hand-made princess or pirate yarn wig at no cost. Wigs take approximately two hours to make and are crafted by volunteers at wig workshops.


Wig workshop volunteers pose with 301 completed wigs after the service event on March 17, 2018.

“It was a huge success!” Christensen said of this year’s BYU wig workshop. While most of the wigs will be distributed by BYU nursing students during their clinicals at Primary Children’s Hospital, Ryver had the chance to choose her wig in person. She wore an Anna wig and a wide smile as her mother pushed her around the Wilkinson Ballroom in a stroller. Not even three years old, Ryver was diagnosed with leukemia only a few months ago.

Magic Yarn Project Girl.jpg

“It was heart-warming to see Princess Ryver light up when she got her wig, and equally rewarding to see her mother get excited about picking out a wig with her. Ryver’s presence definitely made the workshop memorable and was a sweet reminder that this is what the project is all about,” said Christensen. For her, the experience of personally gifting a wig was rare; most wigs are mailed to individuals and cancer centers around the world.


The wig workshop at BYU brought the community together. Among the hundreds of volunteers knotting, braiding and decorating yarn hairpieces was 17-year-old Connor Munden. His grandmother’s involvement in the Magic Yarn Project Utah Chapter inspired an Eagle Scout Service Project to prepare for BYU’s workshop. Along with family and friends, Connor cut most of the yarn—thousands of feet of it—that eventually became 301 completed wigs.


In addition, students from BYU and members of the Magic Yarn Project Utah Chapter volunteered to teach those coming to the workshop how to make various wigs. “This event helped me realize there are lots of different ways to serve those with cancer,” said Maggie Gunn, a BYU nursing student and wig instructor at the workshop, “We may not be able to cure their cancer, but we can provide comfort and love which, in my opinion, is just as important as the chemo.”

“With the Magic Yarn Project, there’s something for everyone,” concluded BYU nursing student Jessica Small, “Whether bedazzling flowers or tying yarn to a wig, people of all ages can come together and make a difference in the lives of so many children.”

Next year’s BYU wig workshop will take place on March 16, 2019. To learn more about the Magic Yarn Project, visit

Jane Goodfellow-1

“Everyone knows someone who has struggled with cancer: a family member, friend, patient or ward member. While we can’t cure someone’s cancer, we can help, comfort and love them. Making these wigs is a way to show child cancer patients that they’re loved,” said Jane Goodfellow, a fourth-semester BYU nursing student. Goodfellow (right) is pictured with fellow nursing student Leah Guerrero (left). The two volunteered as instructors at the wig workshop.



The Magic Yarn Project Returns to BYU to Make Wigs for Child Cancer Patients

By Calvin Petersen

In the largest-ever service event of its kind, BYU College of Nursing will partner with the Magic Yarn Project on March 17 to craft nearly 300 princess and pirate themed wigs for child cancer patients.

This is the second time BYU will host a wig workshop. Last year, the Wilkinson Student Center was filled with over 400 people knotting, braiding and decorating yarn hairpieces. “This is an awesome volunteer experience because you feel like what you’re doing is really helping someone,” said BYU nursing student Jessica Wright after the event. “It’s nice to wake up on a Saturday morning and do something for someone else,” agreed BYU student Sam Smith.


Magic Yarn Project co-founder Holly Christensen works with volunteers to prepare a Moana wig.

The Magic Yarn Project began in 2015 when BYU nursing alumna Holly Christensen (BS ’06), a resident of Palmer, Alaska, discovered that her friend’s daughter had cancer. “As an oncology nurse, one of the things I learned is that I can’t do everything, but I can do something,” Christensen says. For her, that meant crafting a Rapunzel wig out of soft yarn for the girl to wear.

The magic happened when the girl put on the wig. She twirled around in her pink Rapunzel dress, smiling and forgetting the painful world of cancer she had been in. Making more wigs wasn’t a hard decision for Christensen after that. She recruited a group of friends and asked for yarn donations on social media. Their story was picked by an online magazine and quickly got attention from news media across the United States.

So far, over 6,000 wigs have been delivered, at no cost, to child cancer patients across the world, according to Christensen. These wigs have been the efforts of thousands of volunteers at wig workshops similar to the one at BYU. In addition, women at a correctional facility in Alaska crochet beanie caps that serve as the base for each wig. Christensen herself dedicates more than 40 hours a week to the project on top of two weekly shifts as a nurse and raising her family.


During last year’s five-hour Magic Yarn Project wig workshop at BYU, over 400 people made 185 wigs.

“There have been times a little voice inside myself has said, ‘These are just wigs, this isn’t that important,’” Christensen says. “Then we get emails, and parents tell us how much it meant to them to see their daughter smile again after nothing but illness and needles and pain and hospitals. So, for these children and their families, they feel like this gives them a little bit of a normal life again, a glimpse of what it might be like when they get better.”

Christensen will travel to Provo to host the March 17 wig workshop, which will take place in BYU’s Wilkinson Student Center. Volunteers will make a variety of princess and pirate inspired wigs, which will be donated to Primary Children’s hospital and children throughout the world.

Anyone interested in participating can register for a two-hour time slot at No crocheting or advanced crafting skills are necessary.  To make a monetary donation to the Magic Yarn Project or to learn more about the nonprofit, visit

8 Reasons to Attend the 2018 Night of Nursing

By Calvin Petersen

  1. Barbara Perry. Listen to Sister Perry—LDS Hospital nurse, past BYU College of Nursing faculty, recipient of BYU Honored Alumni Award and wife of the late Elder L. Tom Perry—as this year’s Night of Nursing keynote speaker.
  2. Prizes. Enter a Night of Nursing raffle and win BYU College of Nursing swag—t-shirts, lanyards, scarfs and more. Attend the Provo party and enter to win Amazon and Costa Vida gift cards and an Amazon Echo.
  3. BYU mint brownies. Devour free mouth-watering BYU mint brownies at almost every Night of Nursing location.
  4. Gifts. Receive a special gift from the College of Nursing simply for attending a Night of Nursing party.
  5. Networking. Expand your professional network by meeting nursing professionals and other BYU alumni at each location.
  6. Fun. Enjoy reuniting and reminiscing with friends and participate in games to make new ones.
  7. Sigma Theta Tau International. Come early to the Provo Night of Nursing and celebrate the 30 years of Iota Iota, BYU’s chapter of Sigma Theta Tau International.
  8. BYU unity. Join simultaneously with BYU students, alumni and friends in over 40 locations across the United States on March 1 for Night of Nursing.Reasons to Attend

7 Fun Facts About Sister Barbara Perry

By Calvin Petersen

Sister Barbara Perry is the keynote speaker for Night of Nursing, a BYU College of Nursing alumni event taking place in over 40 locations nationwide on March 1, 2018. Get to know Sister Perry before attending with these fun facts about her life:

  1. Sister Barbara Perry is the wife of the late Elder L. Tom Perry. They met on January 22, were engaged on February 16 and were married on April 28, 1976, in the Salt Lake Temple. Of her, Elder Perry said, “She is devoted to the Lord. As I have the opportunity of kneeling each night and morning with my wife in prayer, I am full of gratitude for the blessing and privilege of having her companionship.” At the time of his passing in 2015, Elder and Sister Perry had been married for 39 years.127010
  2. Sister Perry became friends with celebrated LDS painter Minerva Teichert while growing up in Cokeville, Wyoming. Teichert lived on a nearby cattle ranch and asked Barbara and her sister to pose as the central figures for “Moving South,” one of Teichert’s most famous murals. A portrait of Barbara as a young woman, painted by Teichert, hangs today in Sister Perry’s Salt Lake City condo.


    “Moving South” by Minerva Teichert. Image source:

  3. Sister Perry was inspired by her aunt to become a nurse. “She was a nurse and I always admired her,” she says.
  4. Sister Perry was in the last graduating class of the LDS Hospital School of Nursing in 1955. The Church’s discontinued nursing program transitioned to the establishment of BYU’s College of Nursing program.
  5. Sister Perry taught associate degree courses at BYU College of Nursing between 1972 and 1976. Some of the courses she taught were med-surg, maternity nursing, post-partem and nursery.
  6. Sister Perry was honored by the College of Nursing at BYU’s 1999 Homecoming with an Honored Alumni Award. This recognition is given to BYU graduates who have made significant professional contributions in their field. Some of Sister Perry’s professional roles include serving as labor and delivery nurse, head nurse and assistant director of nursing during the 15 years she worked at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City.
  7. Together with Elder Perry, Sister Perry has 15 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Before he passed away, Elder Perry said, “Being a grandparent is a wonderful calling! We have the greatest grandchildren. You just can’t believe it!”


    Elder L. Tom Perry and Barbara (left) stand with President Russell M. Nelson and his wife Wendy (right) during the dedicatory services of the Brigham City Temple. Image source:

Eating Their Way to Employment

By Calvin Petersen

For most, the promise of receiving catered lunch and a world-famous BYU mint brownie is enough to get anyone to an event. However, for those attending the BYU College of Nursing Speed “Nurseworking” Luncheon last Thursday, more than food was on the line. Fifty-seven nursing students, graduating in April, were hungry for jobs.

Maryann Lowe and Rachael Langston

Maryann Lowe (center) and Rachel Langston (left) talk with a recruiter about interviewing best practices.

“I’m hoping to understand what recruiters are looking for when they hire new people,” said Maryann Lowe, a nursing student from Houston, Texas, “Maybe some advice for interviewing, general expectations and what things can set me apart. And then, if it does come up, a possible job opportunity.”

Even students who already know where they want to work after graduation attended the luncheon to explore job opportunities. “My purpose in being here is really just to see what my other options are if my plans don’t work out or I find something that sounds more attractive,” said Johny Jacobs, a nursing student who hopes to get a job at the Salt Lake VA Hospital.

Johny Jacobs and Jack Sturgeon

Johny Jacobs (left) talks with BYU Army ROTC recruiter Jack Sturgeon (right) about how he can blend his experience in nursing with the military.

During the luncheon, students eagerly scribbled notes and asked questions as more than two dozen professionals and alumni rotated around the room. “The main thing I like to do is talk to students about resumes, interviews and applications to help them land their first job. Whether it’s with me or somebody else, I don’t really care as long as I can help them,” says Steward Health Care Senior Recruiter Gregg Hale.

Hale is a veteran of the Speed “Nurseworking” Luncheon, having attended since its inception in 2014. He says he’s often impressed with BYU nursing students who thank him for his resume advice—some students even email Hale a copy of the improvements they’ve made to their resumes. “I have a lot of knowledge that these students are going to need in the next little bit and so I’m happy to pass it on,” says Hale.

Gregg Hale and Jessica Hunter

Steward Health Care Senior Recruiter Gregg Hale (right) counsels Jessica Hunter (left) about how to craft a resume that stands out to recruiters.

For College of Nursing alumni Mariellen Sereno (BS ’84, AS ’79), attending the luncheon meant driving over 9 hours from Anaheim, California, where she lives with her husband “in the shadow of the Matterhorn.” Sereno currently works as the Stroke Program Coordinator at Anaheim Regional Medical Center. She remembers what it was like to be an anxious student awaiting graduation and wanted to help students at the luncheon know about the possibilities that come with a degree in nursing.

“Nursing is just so broad. There are so many options available to nurses in the healthcare profession. I’ve taken a long and winding road since I graduated in 1979 and I’ve enjoyed every step of it,” says Sereno.

Mariellen Sereno and Bailey Gibbons

Mariellen Sereno (left) shares stories from her nursing career with Bailey Gibbons (right).

Students like Mary Mitton and Lisa Kofford received that message. “Everyone kind of started at the same point, but seeing where they’ve been made me realize there are so many different paths you can take with nursing,” said Mitton after the luncheon. Because she’s from Provo, Mitton plans to work locally for a couple of years until she goes back to school for her DNP.

Kofford, on the other hand, plans to look outside of hospital nursing for her career. “Seeing that a lot of people have done that and been successful, that there are other options, was really insightful to me,” said Kofford. The Speed “Nurseworking” Luncheon made both Mitton and Kofford grateful for their education at BYU. “I don’t think you can get a better education in nursing,” says Mitton. Kofford agreed, calling BYU’s nursing program “phenomenal.”

While students at the luncheon still have to make it through finals, graduation and countless job interviews, they left feeling a little more full and a little more hopeful than they were before.