By Shelby Julien, Auburn University

Although she did not fully understand what it meant, at 12 years old Valarie Thomas knew one thing for sure—her true calling was to become a nurse. She could not shake the feeling of wanting to help others through their worst moments.

“I did not know much about nursing and wasn’t even really sure what it all entailed, but I just knew that it was for me,” said Thomas, an associate clinical professor in the School of Nursing at Sullivan Foundation partner school Auburn University. “It was a gut feeling that I carried with me daily.”

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Thomas recently received the 2020 Lillian Holland Harvey Award, presented by the Alabama State Nurses Association to a nurse who has made significant contributions in fostering transcultural relations, promoting the advancement of minority groups and upgrading healthcare services offered to those who are economically disadvantaged.

The Camp Hill, Ala., native received the award for her work with the Ghana Healthcare Program at Auburn and her accomplishments as chair of the School of Nursing’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The Ghana Healthcare Program, which is offered by University Outreach Global, gives nursing students an opportunity to get hands-on learning experience while volunteering at health clinics and hospitals in Ghana for five to seven days each spring.

“The work in Ghana is difficult, and the travel is hard, but we love every minute of it,” Thomas said. “The students who have attended have been absolutely amazing. We have seen over 3,000 residents in the past three years, with nearly 1,800 of those seen this spring before COVID-19.”

An Auburn School of Nursing student checks a patient’s pulse at a medical facility in Ghana.

Besides making her mark abroad, Thomas also has made herself known as a voice for change on Auburn’s campus. “As the chair of the … Diversity and Inclusion Committee, I’m responsible for ensuring the school’s diversity action plan remains alive and operable,” she said. “Our goal is to provide the school with a voice relating to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Thomas’ goals for the committee are to recruit and retain a more diverse faculty and student population while promoting cultural competence in the classroom and clinical setting.

Thomas has worked toward those goals since she joined the Auburn family in 2012 as a clinical lecturer. With 26 years of nursing experience under her belt, Thomas has plenty of knowledge and advice to pass on to Auburn nursing students.

She was inspired to become a nurse after she and her seven siblings watched her father suffer through several illnesses. Since then, Thomas has devoted her life to taking care of others and teaching the next generation of health care workers.

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She earned her doctorate of nursing practice in organizational leadership and master’s degree in nursing education from Walden University. Her students have twice nominated her for the Outstanding Faculty Award.

“It has been a privilege to serve so many others at their worst moments,” Thomas said. “I’m a firm believer that we are at our happiest moments when we are helping others. We are made to serve others, and through this service, our own needs are met.”

Valarie Thomas

However, for Thomas, nursing is more than just healing physical wounds and illnesses. It’s about caring for the mental, emotional and spiritual needs of her patients and their families. “My favorite part about being a nurse is pulling up a chair or sitting on the edge of my patients’ beds and allowing them to just talk,” Thomas said. “I want them to know they can trust me with their thoughts and feelings, even in their most frightening moments.”

Thomas’ faith and compassion for others is what inspired her to write the recently published book, “A Woman of Purpose, Finding Self and Making a Difference.”

“I wanted to bring my past to light in hopes of setting others free,” Thomas said. “We often lose ourselves in others trying to make people happy at our own expense. I needed to get my story out in the open in hopes of helping others become mentally, emotionally and spiritually free.”

Although Thomas has loved every minute of her time as a teacher, she plans on focusing the next chapter of her life on her writing career. “I love teaching, but I do plan to decrease my hours as an educator and focus more on ministry and writing,” she said. “I have a lot to say in efforts to bring healing to others. I would like to become a public speaker with some aspect of motivating others to take the journey towards freedom. I have no doubt that I will do just that.”

This story has been edited from the original version appearing on the Auburn University website.

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