Tenacity, a thirst for knowledge, and a surprise nursing career

A nursing professor and nurse practitioner, Kerri Rupe shares how she built a successful career in nursing starting from scratch.

Manuela Armini
Manuela Armini
26th Apr 2023 • 6m read

When it comes to helping others and saving lives, it matters less about where you come from and more about how far you are willing to go. Today we turn our spotlight on Kerri Rupe, a nurse practitioner and educator who fell into nursing while sleeping rough on the streets of Iowa. If you’ve never thought about a career in healthcare because of your cultural or social background, this interview might make you consider things from a different perspective.

Lessons learned from experience

Today, Kerri Rupe is a Professor at the University of Iowa College of Nursing, and the advice she gives her students is to find a good mentor. In her opinion, a good teacher or mentor is a person who doesn’t expect you to memorize things but challenges your reasoning and critical thinking. Once you actually understand how the human body functions, you will never forget what you’ve learned; you will be able to find solutions to problems you have never come across before. One of Kerri’s favorite teaching methods is to bring her nursing students to the cadaver lab.


We have a tendency in medicine, right now, to slice people up into parts. So you're a brain, or you're a stomach, or you're a leg, but you're not a person. And when you look at the person from head to toe in the cadaver lab and see all of the stuff that works together to make you function, it's amazing.


If you think Kerri learned these teaching techniques in academic books, you’re mistaken. Of course, she did study nursing practice and education, but her approach to teaching comes from the practical experience she gained working her way up through nursing. It might surprise you to learn that Kerri’s family tree doesn’t feature generations of clinicians or a privileged background. On the contrary, Kerri comes from humble beginnings and even spent some time on the streets.


Stumbling her way into nursing

Young Kerri Rupe wanted to be a lawyer. That's why she took law classes at a nearby college while attending high school, instead of studying more conventional topics like history. When she learned she couldn’t transfer the law courses to fulfill her high school graduation requirements, that did not sit well with Kerri. She resolved to take the GRE as a high school diploma equivalency. While her mother doubted she would pass, Kerri succeeded. With no clear direction for her future and tension with her parents running high, rebellious Kerri took off on her own to explore the world and ended up homeless for a period of time. But it wasn’t long before hunger caught up with her, and she decided she needed to find a job and make some money. When she discovered that one of her friends was being paid to attend certified nurse assistant (CNA) classes, she jumped at the opportunity. That’s how Kerri accidentally fell onto the path to nursing. She enjoyed being a CNA so much that she wanted to learn more and began studying to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN).


I didn't have any funding at that point in time because I was poor. I went to work from 12 pm to midnight, or 12 am to 7 am, and went to nurse’s training from 8:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. Then I slept for a little while and then went back to work. That's how I went through my LPN.


Once Kerri rediscovered her passion for learning, nothing could stop her. Full of excitement, but with very little money, Kerri worked as many shifts as she could as a CNA to pay for nursing school tuition. Eventually, all the hard work paid off, and she succeeded in becoming an LPN.

From LPN to Registered Nurse in the ICU

Becoming an LPN was already a big achievement, but Kerri was still thirsty for knowledge, and she decided to keep studying to become a registered nurse (RN). With a better-paying job, Kerri’s journey toward becoming an RN was a little bit easier than her previous years working to become an LPN. Still, she had to work and study hard throughout the whole period. Immediately after graduating as an RN, Kerri landed a job in an intensive care unit.


It was phenomenal! I loved it, it was challenging, it was exciting, it was everything that I thought I loved. And I was there for almost 20 years. And it was the best part of my career. It was awesome!


Kerri remembers her time in the ICU with fondness because that is where she met some of her best mentors and friends. She was very young at the time, and everything was so new and complex in the beginning. Luckily, her colleagues took her under their wings and showed her how to do things. They challenged her with questions like Why am I doing this? What happens if I do that? She was constantly encouraged to think and have an internal dialogue as she worked, and that’s something that has stayed with her and helped her to navigate the most difficult times in her nursing career.

From RN to practicing Nurse Practitioner

While working as an RN, Kerri heard about something called a nurse practitioner (NP). She didn’t know much about it, but a friend of hers at the University of Nebraska was planning on starting a family nurse practitioner program. Needless to say, when the program opened its doors, Kerri was among the first to enroll. Once again, history repeated itself, and she found herself juggling work, study, and her life as a newlywed at the same time.


I was married, I didn't have kids yet. But I can remember thinking, this is just crazy. There were times when I was driving to Kirksville, Missouri, which is about an hour from here, at 4:00 in the morning, so I could be on the unit at 6:00. I would take care of one patient for eight hours, and then I would drive back and take care of seven patients. At that point in time, I didn't need it [money] from a job, it was just something that I wanted to do.


As the saying goes, where there's a will, there's a way, and Kerri found her way to become a primary care NP. By that time, she was living a comfortable life, but Kerri never forgot about her time on the street. That’s why she soon started working at a homeless shelter where she still works today. Kerri absolutely loves working there and taking care of people who are often medically underserved.

From clinical practice to a Doctorate in Nursing Practice

Kerri’s love for learning shaped her entire career, so much so that she decided to become an educator to teach future generations of nurses. She obtained her master’s degree in Nursing Education and started to teach at the University of Iowa and Indian Hills Community College. Soon after starting this new adventure, she understood teaching was what she wanted to do for a living. 


I thought I wanted a PhD and I looked into it. I thought, ‘No, I'm not going to do research, I'm going to be a clinician all my life’. And so I waited for the Doctorate of Nursing Practice [program] to come. At that point in time, it was just for people who already had a master's degree, who were already nurse practitioners.


When the University of Iowa finally started its doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) program, Kerri was the first in its class. She successfully earned her Doctorate in Nursing Practice, and after many years working clinically, in 2000 she retired from clinical practice. Kerri has been teaching at the University of Iowa since 2008.

Changes are not failures

Kerri’s journey through nursing wasn’t an easy one. Looking back, she wishes she had better direction when she was younger. She now spends a lot of time with her grandkids showing them all of the opportunities they have in front of them. She helps them explore science, medicine, engineering, and anything else they are curious about. Even more, she encourages them to see their future career choices as part of their identity.


The problem we have in academia is that we think there is a track that you've got to go down to get to point x. And that is so not true. There's a million ways to get to x and all of that experience you get outside, you bring with you. And if you spent a year in engineering and then decide you want to be a nurse, that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. You bring that expertise with you. There's no bad change.


Today, Kerri suspects she wouldn’t have made a good lawyer. She also feels that had she gone down that path, she wouldn’t be as happy as she is now. That’s why she invites students and colleagues to investigate all possibilities and not see changes as failures—every experience becomes part of who you are.

Homeless teenager Kerri Rupe had never imagined that one day she would lecture a group of nursing students. Yet, here she is today—living testimony that healthcare careers are not reserved for those who come from generations of clinicians or from privileged backgrounds. Thank you Kerri, for sharing your inspiring story of tenacity and love for medicine