Fifty years after graduating from the Hotel Dieu School of Nursing, five students from the class of 1961 reunited at The University of Texas at El Paso to reminisce about their school days and share their joy of nursing with UTEP students.
The Hotel Dieu School of Nursing was established in 1898 by the Sisters of Charity. The school was transferred to The University of Texas System in 1971. Five years later, the UT System placed the School of Nursing under UTEP’s administrative oversight. Today, UTEP’s School of Nursing serves more than 1,600 students.
Patricia Fashing Stuelpnagel, Willie Flournoy Streeter, Inez Munoz Mahon, Virginia McKibben Jones and Louisa Martinez Villanueva were five of 22 students who met in August 1958 at the Hotel Dieu School of Nursing in downtown El Paso.
One student dropped out on the first day of the semester. The class had dwindled to eight students by the time they reached graduation three years later.
“The education requirements were pretty stiff,” remembered Mahon, who was the school’s student body president. “The first day one quit. She said, ‘I can’t take this’ and we said, ‘We haven’t done anything, yet.’”
Each of the five women came from different walks of life but all of them shared the same ambition: to help people.
Patricia Fashing Stuelpnagel followed in her mother’s footsteps. Her mother graduated from a nursing program in St. Paul, Minn., in 1927, similar to Hotel Dieu’s hospital-based nursing diploma program.
Stuelpnagel spent most of her career in Denver, retiring three years ago. In her early days as a nurse, she used glass syringes, and needles were sterilized in a steam autoclave and reused.
She said each of her peers did something special after graduation. Stuelpnagel and Virginia McKibben Jones went to San Antonio together to pursue their bachelor’s degrees in nursing.
Jones wanted to become a nurse from the time she was 4 years old. She was raised by her father, a doctor in the U.S. Army, and her stepmother, a nurse. As an Army child, she traveled the world before her family settled in El Paso. She met Mahon when both attended Loretto Academy.
After graduation, Jones and Mahon enrolled in nursing school together. Jones remembered how she and her classmates had practiced by giving shots to one another and inserting nasogastric tubes through their noses.
Before retiring in 2002, Jones traveled the world practicing nursing and teaching. She and her husband, an ophthalmologist, and her three children went on medical missions to countries including the Dominican Republic and China.
When Mahon’s credits did not transfer to the University of California, Los Angeles, Bachelor of Nursing program, she decided to change her career and become a lawyer until Jones’ father persuaded her to stay with nursing.
Mahon lived in Colorado and returned to school for her bachelor’s degree after her oldest child was in college. She eventually earned her master’s and worked as a nurse practitioner in the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.
She remembers her days at the Hotel Dieu School of Nursing as an incredible learning experience.
“As a charity hospital, it covered the whole state and we got to see everything,” Mahon said. “And the students were medical students, nursing students, dental students, nutrition and psychology.”
One of Mahon’s most memorable moments occurred when she and her lab partner, Willie Flournoy Streeter, spilled a tuberculosis sample.
“We closed the windows, turned the air conditioner off and every one put masks on,” she said, adding that the room caught on fire. “But we made it through.”
Streeter was the first black student enrolled at the Hotel Dieu School of Nursing. She wanted to be an artist but a counselor convinced her to go into nursing instead.
Streeter earned her bachelor’s degree from California State University, Los Angeles and went to work for a veteran’s hospital in Los Angeles. She worked as a public health nurse for 30 years.
Before retiring in 2007, Streeter worked as the public health liaison at Los Angeles County – USC Medical Center and as part of a public health surveillance unit that cares for females with syphilis in Los Angeles.
Mahon remembered the discrimination her friend was subjected to while they were nursing students.
“It was really sad. We’d go Downtown to eat and some places would just not serve us,” she said. “Willie was cool about it, but I wouldn’t be cool about it.”
Out of the five classmates, Louisa Martinez Villanueva was the only one who stayed in El Paso after graduation.
Villanueva had 10 siblings. Her father encouraged her seven brothers to attend school but he wanted his daughters to become domestic workers.
Instead, Villanueva got married, but her husband died when she was 28 years old, leaving her with two children to raise on her own.
She enrolled at the Hotel Dieu School of Nursing nine months after her husband’s death.
She worked as a nurse for 34 years until a stroke in 2010 forced her to quit.
Villanueva’s career was an adventure. For 14 years, she cared for undocumented immigrants at a detainment center in El Paso.
Early one morning in September 1970, one of Villanueva’s neighbors knocked on her door asking for help to deliver a friend’s baby. Word spread quickly, and soon Villanueva was working days and delivering babies at night — something she continued for the next 20 years.
She said working as a nurse was a great experience.
“You give more love than you receive, but that’s what nursing is all about,” she said. Lindsey Valderrama, a UTEP pre-nursing student, was inspired after listening to the five nurses share their life stories.
Valderrama worked as a scrub tech in the U.S. Army for eight years. Her goal is to go on humanitarian missions after she receives her nursing degree.
“It was incredible to hear their journey throughout nursing,” she said. “I really enjoyed hearing about their missions to different countries and how they used their nursing skills throughout the world,” she said.
The reunion was an opportunity for old friends to catch up.
“These people have been so close to me,” Jones said. “I grew up in the Army so I never stuck with anybody. These are my closest friends.”
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