Longtime nurse practitioner credits DNP for stronger voice, fulfilling career

Assistant Professor Laura Van Auker guides family nurse practitioner students
Assistant Professor Laura Van Auker, left with the black facemask, guides family nurse practitioner students through a simulation exercise using telehealth technology.

Laura L. Van Auker knew she wanted to be a nurse at the age of six. When she turned 12, she learned about, what was new at the time, a program to become an advanced practice provider as a nurse practitioner (N.P.).

“And I went, yeah. That’s what I want to do,” recalled Van Auker, a family nurse practitioner (FNP) and assistant professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis. “My heart has always been in community health and family health. I wanted deep relationships with people and their families throughout the trajectory of their lives.”

Van Auker’s belief was it “takes being a little bit of a rebel” to be a nurse who has the confidence to do what’s right or seek out the resources to know the right course of care. That rebellious spirit ultimately led her to take a chance on yet another education option to advance her career and enlarge her scope of practice.

“When the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) was proposed, I was opposed to the concept,” she explained. “I was a very experienced N.P. at that point clinically. I had strong leadership skills in the community. I was engaged myself in policy. I thought, ‘What is the nurse going to get out of this?’”

Upon further investigation, she realized what a DNP offered — a way to make a broader difference in patient outcomes, a bigger impact on the next generation of N.P.s (as an educator) and the chance be heard in the policy arena.

Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing Assistant Professor Laura Van Auker shares her journey to becoming a nurse practitioner and then achieving her DNP degree.

“I realized that the doctorate brings an extra power of voice,” she said.

During her DNP program at Oregon Health & Science University, she honed her clinical skills, developed her teaching abilities and deepened her connection to care in under-resourced areas both locally and internationally.

“I have always had a global kind of citizen identity. I moved toward the DNP knowing it would empower me to participate in some of that too,” she said.

Her doctoral project focused on advancing the use of N.P.s in underserved populations. Specialty clinical work in Africa launched what would become a lifelong connection to the people of Kenya.

Van Auker, who also served as a UC Davis Global Ambassador, now leads a local, student-focused effort with the global component of a collaboration with the University of Nairobi. When travel challenges brought about by the pandemic ease, she hopes to travel with an interprofessional team of faculty and alumni to Nairobi to collaborate with the Kenyan Schools of Medicine and Nursing to present an interprofessional team training workshop and participate in joint clinical activities.

Until then, she relishes in the role she plays in advancing nursing practice and improving the care for individuals, communities and entire populations.

“We need to recognize that nursing needs two terminal degrees that do two different types of skillsets that are critical to advancing nursing science and changing health care,” Van Auker explained. “I’m the person who wants to apply and implement the science that my PhD colleagues discover in their research. And the beauty at UC Davis is we collaborate together.”

Another benefit of UC Davis she highlights is how the proposed Doctor of Nursing Practice — Family Nurse Practitioner Degree Program is structured. The three-year hybrid program that combines distanced-based education with four on-campus immersions weaves in health equity, bold leadership and innovative clinical practice from the start.

“It’s integrating it from day one into the way you think, the way you apply science, the way you seek knowledge. It’s a philosophy,” she said.

Getting a bit sentimental, Van Auker added, “I am close to completing my fourth decade as a nurse and I am still as passionate today as that 12-year-old who said, ‘yes, I’m going to be a nurse practitioner.’ I think that’s pretty special. The joy of learning that came out of my personal DNP experience, I want that for our students too.”