Associate Professor, Athabasca University
Dr. Virginia Vandall-Walker was an early BScN graduate, in the first combined four-year class of ’72 at the University of Windsor. Her persistence, passion and pioneering nature has propelled her in her profession, taking her from outpost nursing in Canada’s North to an academic career at Athabasca University, Canada’s leading online university.
Virginia spent her early career working in remote fly-in communities in northern Canada. Her first nursing position was as a Health Canada nurse-in-charge in a northern Manitoba First Nations community. Knowing that many people in her community could only access the nursing station by boat, she established satellite locations at fish camps around the lake to improve access to health promotion and health care. She even obtained her pilot’s licence, thinking this would probably come in handy! For 20 years, Virginia worked across Canada’s North, in multiple, isolated reserves, as a Director of Nursing in a rural health care facility, and as the Program Lead of the first rural pre-licensure nursing assistant program. In all these capacities, she was able to influence the health promotion and nursing care of Indigenous and non-indigenous populations.
“I had always planned to nurse in Africa,” recalls Virginia. “I went north for the experience, and quickly saw that I did not need to leave Canada, as nurses were so needed within the Indigenous communities.”
While in Grouard, Alberta, Virginia developed a Homemaker Aide program for Indigenous women at the local community college, to prepare them to support their communities and the work of local nurses. When Virginia noticed that a lack of adequate childcare on the reserves was resulting in students missing classes, she spearheaded the organization of a Daycare Society, opening the first daycare at her college for students from across the south of Treaty 8.
“Initiating and establishing the society and the daycare was an incredible experience and achievement, against many odds,” shares Virginia. “I had to submit a request to the Alberta Legislature who then provided us a facility and allowed us to remodel. Community members volunteered time and expertise for the renovation. The college agreed to bus parents AND children from the reserves and we were able to hire excellent staff. We met each challenge and opened our doors to a full complement within eight months from pitching the idea!”
For the past 20 years, Virginia has been on faculty with Athabasca University in the Centre for Nursing and Health Studies. She spearheaded the original post-graduate proposal for the nurse practitioner program and was involved in the development and delivery of Athabasca University’s online distance nursing programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels.
“Distance learning with Athabasca University was such a game changer for so many Albertan (and Canadian) nurses who wanted more education, but who needed to fit it in with full-time and part-time work, and in their home communities. At first, we delivered courses by mail...then by the end of the 90s by email. I am so proud to have been involved with my stellar colleagues during this period,” shares Virginia. Virginia has made an incredible impact on nursing, as a practitioner, administrator, educator, researcher, and her work and contributions to the profession will continue to influence future generations.