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Meet 2023 Luminary Award Recipient Jessi Kendall ’14

Jessi Kendall had mixed emotions as she embarked on her nursing degree at UW–Madison in fall 2009.

Jessi Kendall ’14

UW Major: Nursing
Registered Nurse, UW Health
Founder, Nursing Needs You, LLC

Jessi Kendall had mixed emotions as she embarked on her nursing degree at UW–Madison in fall 2009. Most of her classmates were traditional-aged first-year students, but Kendall was 28 and working full-time as a server at the Original Pancake House in Madison. Her mother-in-law had recently been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and Kendall also happened to be pregnant with her oldest daughter.

“To be thinking about all of these things when you come in on Monday for class, and other people are describing their much more typical college-student weekends, yes, I knew I was different,” says Kendall.

Yet the flip side to this difficult start was a unique wisdom about working with patients. “In nursing school, there was so much I never had to learn. I already knew that a person’s diagnoses aren’t all of who they are,” she says. “I think of how beautiful it was that my mother-in-law shared in my excitement of returning to school. … There was so much laughter and so many smiles along with those challenges. I learned that you don’t have to give up joy just because you’re sick.”

After graduation, Kendall’s compassionate core made her stand out almost immediately at UW Health, where she started as a nurse in the general medicine unit. One of the more experienced nurses quickly tapped Kendall to become a diversity and cultural-congruence resource nurse, and Kendall underwent additional training to become a strong advocate for patients of color.

Kendall developed a passion for improving trust and communication with patients who’d often had past negative experiences with the health care system. “Laughter and joy, a good heart-to-heart talk with your nurse in the middle of the night — all of the ways that folks are reminded of their humanity can be so healing. That’s all become a part of the way I care for my patients,” she says.

For Kendall, fostering joy is an especially important part of her work because of her own history overcoming mental-health challenges. Kendall, who grew up in Madison, struggled with depression as a teenager but attempted to muscle through it as a college student in New Orleans. Eventually, she dropped out and came back to her hometown to rest and heal. She became a restaurant server and learned how to both talk and listen to a wide range of people, especially older adults, and her interest in working in health care began to blossom.

Kendall has been actively involved in various initiatives in and outside of UW Health to recruit more Black nurses into the profession. Additionally, she founded Nursing Needs You, an independent organization to support aspiring and early-career Black nurses.

“It used to really bother me that my path was different, and I felt like I was behind,” Kendall says. “So many of us don’t give ourselves credit for the double duty we’re doing along the way. We’re not just going to school, or having a child, or holding a job. We’re caregivers. We’re cycle-breakers. We’re anchors in our families. We are fighting trauma and genetic predispositions to the same things that took some of the loved ones who came before us.”

“Nursing Needs You is a guilt-free zone,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how long and twisted your road to nursing has been. Everything that brought you here will make you better able to help someone who needs you.”

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