Nursing allows Julie Pekala to integrate her love of science, art and human connection
November 2, 2021
As her time at Southwest High School in Minneapolis wound down and college beckoned, tears streamed down Julie Pekala’s face.
Deciding on a major and a future career was exasperating. And, to Pekala, it felt as though she was being forced to choose between the part of her that loved connecting with others to bring out their best and the joy she held for science and math. Until a teacher and mentor, having listened to Pekala’s tearful venting, offered her a solution.
You should be a nurse.
She hasn’t looked back since. Pekala graduated with her Bachelor of Science in Nursing in May—serving as the student commencement speaker at the School of Nursing’s ceremony—and is staying in the Twin Cities to start her nursing career.
In nursing, she says she’s found a vocation to pour her whole self into—and not just her scientific acumen and people skills, but also the artistic side that she believes helps her appreciate both the common humanity and unique story of each patient. Pekala competed nationally in spoken word poetry as a high school student and continues to write poetry in her spare time.
“I can’t imagine doing any other field,” says Pekala, who also plays five musical instruments. “And it’s everything that I’ve ever wanted to do, all wrapped into one profession.”
That enthusiasm was evident throughout Pekala’s time in the School of Nursing, during which she jumped at opportunities to get involved through student organizations like the Minnesota Nursing Student Board (which she joined as a first-year student and served as vice president as a senior) and the National Student Nurses Association. She also worked as a peer-assisted learning study group leader for early nursing students, an experience that has fueled her ambition to one day return to school to become a professor in the field. (Though, unlike her tutoring sessions, she likely won’t start class with dance breaks.)
“I thrive in feeling like I’m contributing to a bigger purpose,” she says. “Part of the reason that I love nursing is that you’re doing so much more than just giving medical care or nursing interventions. You can help someone heal mind, body, spirit. And in so doing all these extra things out of school was kind of just second nature because school is learning content, but I want to be doing the thing. I want to be acting.”
Pekala admits her driven nature was put to the test in nursing school. “I did not expect it to be as demanding as it was,” she says, particularly during her sophomore year, when long nights at the library became the norm and she slipped into isolation. She’s since tried to forewarn younger students of that isolation trap whenever possible.
She says the community she found in the School of Nursing—and, more broadly, among intellectually curious students across the University of Minnesota campus—helped her out of that isolation. Small class sizes allowed her to form deeper friendships in classes in Weaver-Densford Hall and over breaks in the Moos Health Sciences Tower. Faculty members like Associate Professor Susan O’Conner-Von inspired her. Those relationships and the support they provided while she learned the art and science of nursing have left a lasting mark.
“The person I am now,” she says, “is so much more me than who I was five years ago, six years ago.”