“We Are A Family”: Powerful relationships define class of 1970

As the University of Alberta Hospital Class of September 1970 celebrates its 50th anniversary, an important lesson emerges from their decades of practice, leadership, and friendship: in nursing, as in life, the best care and the deepest learning happen within relationships.

25 September 2020

As the University of Alberta Hospital Class of September 1970 celebrates its 50th anniversary, an important lesson emerges from their decades of practice, leadership, and friendship: in nursing, as in life, the best care and the deepest learning happen within relationships. Relationships, say three members of the class, are ultimately what matters. 

Through years of achievement spanning over five decades, and a legacy of making a difference to patients and communities, this exceptional group has provided a template for supporting one another through the rigours of school, life, and work. This mutual support also forms the foundation from which the class has supported future generations of nurses at the University of Alberta, out of a shared sense of solidarity and purpose. 

As any current or former student can attest, nursing programs at the University of Alberta are and always have been challenging. This was just as true in the late 1960s when the UAH Class of September 1970 began as it is today, but with the added complexity of a more geographically disperse western Canadian context. 

“We were scared!” says Vivian (Stenberg) Holtby, one member of the class. “So many of us were country girls who’d never made it to the big city.” She recalls two students, in particular, arriving from Yellowknife, and a beloved teacher, Mrs. Armstrong, picking the students up from the airport and cooking them a homemade dinner. “Can you imagine what a difference that level of care would have made to young, scared students newly away from their homes?” 

Fast forward to 1995: at a class reunion, Mrs. Armstrong was a guest speaker. “It became a coffee time with some friends because she loved us so much and cared for us so much,” says Holtby. “That sort of relationship -- even after decades apart -- is just unparalleled.”  

This first experience of intergenerational support and care planted seeds of an ethos that would serve the entire class for decades to come: take care of one another, and that care will be the foundation of your practice and the source of lifelong mutual strength. 

Indeed, Holtby points to the support of fellow classmates as the reason she was able to survive and thrive through the personal and professional challenges of a nursing education, with the residence housing system as a particular locus of support. “It was a lively place full of people. We were always huddling, supporting each other -- a lot of traumatic things happen when you’re starting out inpatient care, and we wouldn't have made it without that support.”

Brenda (Leggat) Gladstone has similar memories of her time in school and residence. “We’ve had lifelong friendships from the first day,” she says. “Some of us still see each other once a month — fifty-three years later. We holiday together. We support each other. We’ve grown together.” 

Many former classmates attest to this ongoing sense of familial relationship. Donna (Yakimchuk) Dunn says the bond of the 1970 class has transcended time and space and anchored many lives. “Our group has been amazing — we have a newsletter every year, we’ve met up faithfully every five years. I still feel a great part of that class. We’re interested in one another’s families, one another’s trials and tribulations. After a while, you realize it’s not so important what you’ve done — you just care about people.” 

This has also been the impetus that’s inspired the UHA Class of September 1970 to give back to future generations at the University of Alberta Faculty of Nursing. Dunn explains her motivation for contributing as inspired by the support she received. “We need to support each other — it’s something that we need to do, something nurses have always done. It’s a part of who we are.” 

She also believes that in a changing paradigm of higher education, where more of the funding burden has shifted to students in schools across the globe, it’s incumbent upon nurses who have come before to support a new generation of nurses. “There needs to be more funding for students coming in. We were lucky — if a person couldn't afford to go into nursing, there was a way to be supported in your education. We need to help make it that way for today’s students.”  

Beyond financial support, the class of 1970 offers advice and wisdom for today’s students to support their studies and enrich their lives. “Nursing is one of the best educations you could ever get for life,” says Gladstone. “Still today, decades later, I feel so much better prepared to deal with things like COVID because the nursing education I had was so excellent — you learn about procedures, anatomy, physiology — it’s helpful in so many ways, in all parts of life. It’s a life education. It will always matter.” 

Not only is the education itself important, says Gladstone, but the connections between peers are crucial. “A big part of the education you get comes from your cohort group, and if you’re open to learning with and from one another, your education will be better, and I hope today’s students can keep that alive. The closeness of learning together and getting to know your cohort so well is a big part of your learning, and it’s something nursing has always done really well.” 

Dunn agrees, adding that relationships with patients are equally as important and powerful. “Spend as much time as you can with your patients,” she implores current students. This was a lesson Dunn learned through years of working directly in patients’ own homes, after many years of working in clinical settings. “When you’re in the patient’s home, you’re a guest in the home. It changes the power relationship. We should all remember we’re there for the patient, we should respect that relationship, and we should respect the patient’s dignity.”  

Finally, Holtby underscored the deep connection with classmates as foundational for learning, leadership, and practice. “We were a family, and sisters are sisters forever. We come in many forms and relationships and all of those relationships are sacred and precious.” 

“It was a hard program, but we stuck it out because we had each other, and we had compassion and care for people. Compassion and care are ultimately what matters. That has been the basis of my life, and it has served me well.”