Nov 16, 2020
By Winnie Lui
Sonya Grypma takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ of university’s COVID-19 response
In the early days of COVID-19, nurses in higher education across Canada quickly realized that they could not afford to wait for others to figure out a pandemic response for them.
Instead, they joined forces, drawing on principles and emerging evidence, sharing ideas and resources to help guide their respective nursing programs toward decisions that were both safe and sound.
“Ever since COVID-19 hit our radar at Trinity Western University (TWU) in January 2020, nurses have been at the centre of our university’s response,” says Sonya Grypma, RN, PhD. “We were the ones getting in front of staff and students for education and updates, puzzling through risk assessments and responses to individual concerns behind the scenes, serving key roles on response teams, and opening task forces.”
Soon after the World Health Organization confirmed the pandemic in March, Grypma took on a new role as senior health advisor, overseeing the university’s COVID-19 response and providing a link between the TWU executive leadership team (of which she is a member) and the university’s front-line response.
Nurses at the forefront
Grypma remarks, “It is serendipitous that a number of Canadian universities have nurses in upper administrative roles right now — and you can bet that they are at the forefront of their institutional pandemic responses.”
“Nurses showed up, late at night, on weekends, responding to urgent calls, finding solutions together,” she recalls. Nurses are used to working in teams, Grypma explains, and nurse leaders from across TWU — from the campus wellness centre clinic, School of Nursing, and alumni circles — jumped on board with tenacity and formed the core of the TWU COVID-19 response team, COVID-19 health and safety task force, and COVID-19 public health team.
Leadership, nursing, and college campuses
“Collectively, Canadian nursing educators have a mandate to oversee the safety of thousands of students and hundreds of faculty and staff during the time of COVID-19. It is an awesome responsibility,” says Grypma.
“Fortunately, the ability to respond is something Canadian nurses understand,” she says. “It’s been well honed for centuries now.”
‘It is serendipitous that a number of Canadian universities have nurses in upper administrative roles right now — and you can bet that they are at the forefront of their institutional pandemic responses.’
Grypma recalls how Joy Johnson, incoming president of Simon Fraser University, astutely noted that being a nurse has helped shape her into a compassionate problem-solver.
“That makes sense to me,” says Grypma. “A global pandemic needs compassionate problem-solvers — and nurses have long proven themselves to be just that.”
Nurses are acculturated to care deeply for the well-being of those under their watch. She remarks, “I have been impressed by the swiftness with which nursing educational leaders have stepped up in their organizations to find solutions to the evolving and complex problems caused by COVID-19.”
Early experiences in an Indigenous community
One of the first and most transformational experiences for Grypma was being an outpost nurse in a remote, fly-in Indigenous community.
In this single-nurse station, Grypma had responsibilities ranging from diagnosis and treatment of general ailments and small injuries, to first response, triage and emergency evacuations, to prenatal classes, home visits, and school health.
It was an early lesson in the importance of nursing’s reputation as a trustworthy profession. “I realized very early on what a profound privilege it was to be invited into the private spaces of families not my own, that others’ reliance on me was a sacred trust that I had not necessarily earned; I was trusted because my profession was trusted,” says Grypma.
Journey to organizational leadership
Today Grypma is president of the Canadian Association for Schools of Nursing (CASN) and vice provost of leadership and graduate studies at TWU. Her nearly 35 years’ experience as a nurse is matched by her years working in higher education.
For Grypma — whose earliest clinical work and teaching was in public health — there has always been a natural connection between public health nursing and nursing education. Both involve big-picture, strategic thinking on the one hand, and individualized care and concern (for individuals, families, and students) on the other.
Grypma sees similarities between her first experiences as an outpost nurse and her leadership role at TWU. “My responsibilities are similar now to what they were 30 years ago. The breadth is just wider.”
Leadership lessons from an Indigenous Elder
‘When I ask my dad and other members of our Dutch immigrant community why they risked their lives to harbour others (as so many did), the answer was always “because it was the right thing to do.”’
During her early years as an outpost nurse, an Elder taught Grypma an understanding of leadership: one should seek to be a leader in another village only after one has been proven capable of making good decisions for her own village, family, and self.
This idea echoed Grypma’s own upbringing, in which she was taught the importance of being “faithful in the small things as a precursor to being faithful in the large things.” Her parents — both part of the postwar immigration from Holland to Canada — grew up in families that emphasized generosity and service to others.
In fact, Grypma’s grandparents are honoured in the Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum) in Jerusalem as Righteous Gentiles for their wartime resistance work, including hiding a Jewish woman in their home for several years.
“When I ask my dad and other members of our Dutch immigrant community why they risked their lives to harbour others (as so many did), the answer is always ‘because it was the right thing to do,’” she says.
Family legacy inspires a leadership journey
Grypma links her family’s legacy of sacrificial giving to her own leadership journey. “Organizational leadership, then, is really just an extension of this idea that we are called to use our gifts to serve others,” she says.
Her teachability has helped her advance in her journey. “In my case, I have always been eager to learn; I’ve always been curious about how communities and organizations function, keen to find ways to improve things in my corner, and inspired by conversations with remarkable people along the way.”
Grit and compassion — inspiration from wartime nurses
As a historian of nursing, Grypma is fascinated by the disconnect between the early public image of nursing and nursing practice as it has played out in reality.
“The nurses in China whose lives I’ve studied and written about for 20 years were no wilting violets,” says Grypma. “Indeed, researching my most recent book, The Rockefeller Effect, introduced me to nursing leaders who were demure and feisty in equal measure.”
“When it came to protecting patients or nursing students, they could, and literally did, stare down the enemy,” she says, referencing one example of Vera Nieh (Nie Yuchan), dean of nursing at Rockefeller-funded Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, who, in 1941, convinced Japanese soldiers who were raiding her campus to wait quietly in the hallway for two hours while her nursing students completed their national exams for professional qualification.
“It was wartime,” Grypma explains, “and Nieh knew her students would not be able to register as nurses without complete exams. Trained nurses were central to the war effort underway.”
Nieh is one example of nursing leadership in a time of crisis. “An effective educational leader, in nursing and elsewhere, is deeply invested in the well-being of both students and colleagues,” says Grypma. “They work to build rapport and trust in an expanding network, knowing that when they are up against a complex problem, they can quickly draw from a range of resources to help resolve it.”
She adds, “Nurses are good at this. I’ve seen it over and over again.”
Grypma, S. (2021). Nursing Shifts in Sichuan: Canadian Missions and Wartime China, 1937-1951. Vancouver: UBC Press.