Alumnae Spotlight showcases amazing Laurel women and the paths they have charted since graduation. Whether they are doctors, designers, artists, authors, scientists, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers, pharmacists, or civic activists or volunteers, Laurel women inhabit nearly all careers and corners of the world helping to make it a better place. Our alumnae and the journeys that they have taken speak to the essence of a Laurel education and what makes this School and the community of women who call it their own distinctive. This space highlights their fascinating lives and the mountains they continue to move.
If you would like to be featured in our Alumnae Spotlight, or know of an alumna who might, please email Megan Findling.
August 2017 Alumnae Spotlight
Rachel Koelliker Vanek ’76
Rachel Koelliker Vanek ’76 epitomizes Laurel’s call to service. As an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner at University Hospitals, she helps patients navigate some of their most difficult times. And it’s not just her patients who benefit from Rachel’s care and medical expertise. Rachel’s compassion and understanding inspire her to care also for her patients’ families. She strives to help them “gain a nugget of joy” amidst the stressful times. Her life could have led many places, but Rachel’s love of helping others steered her towards a field where she values the impact her daily interactions have on her patients and their families. A proud White Team member who arrived at Laurel in the Second Grade, Rachel went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Virginia Wesleyan. She subsequently received a bachelor’s of science in nursing from Old Dominion University and a master’s in nursing from Case Western Reserve University. She remains connected to many of her classmates from the Class of ’76 and looks forward to their next reunion!
What are some of your fondest memories of your Laurel days?
Study halls, theater activities, Christmas concerts, Mrs. Lalli’s aerobic classes, volleyball games, gym meets, dodge ball games, picnics on the tennis courts, Eighth Grade Graduation, art classes, Mrs. Hines’ history lectures, so many memories!
What was your favorite class/course at Laurel and what is the most important thing you learned at Laurel (something you draw upon even now)?
Believe it or not Latin! Helps so much with medicine!
What do you think makes a Laurel education distinct?
Small classes and the way the faculty engaged the students are so special to Laurel. There were many creative ways Laurel teachers engaged the students—small groups, reading aloud, acting out historical events and music. Mrs. Robinson’s classes were so lively and engaging. The literature we read in Latin and Greek brought the languages to life. Science classes and experiments were memorable and fun! We did an oral history and I interviewed my grandmother—I still have that tape and listen to her voice on occasion.
After you received your bachelor’s in biology and chemistry from Virginia Wesleyan (VWC), you pursued a bachelor’s in nursing at Old Dominion University. What drew you to becoming a nurse?
I actually spent six months in graduate school right after VWC and dropped out in December 1980 because I did not enjoy the research labs. I wanted to work with people. I learned a lot during this period but missed the interaction with people. I had been an RA at VWC and loved caring for my dorm-mates. So I worked and lived on the beach for two years, saving money and exploring my options, before going back for my bachelor’s in nursing. I had always been interested in nursing and volunteered in a clinic with nurses and nurse practitioners who loved what they did. With my previous degree, I was able to get my BSN in two years.
You returned to Cleveland and got a Master’s in nursing from CWRU in 1993. What do you love about working in Cleveland and living in Chardon?
We came back to Cleveland for my husband’s job when he got promoted into a management role. I got a job in the ER at University Hospitals. The Acute Care NP program was just starting at CWRU. The hospital was offering full scholarships but there were only seven spots and it was competitive! But I applied and was granted one of the spots!
I love the people here—such a great diversity of cultures! I do hate the commute, however. Chardon is a great place to live—rural but with enough proximity to activities to keep life fun! The schools in Chardon were wonderful for our daughter. We were very active parents from elementary school all the way through. But, most importantly, being here gave our daughter a chance to know my parents and we were so blessed to have them active in her life. When we were in Virginia we did not get to see my family as much and moving here brought us closer together on many levels!
You are now an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner at University Hospitals. What is the most fulfilling part of your job?
Taking care of people during the most vulnerable time of their lives is rewarding and a heavy responsibility. Connecting with the patient and family, listening to them and guiding them as they navigate their way through a critical illness are very fulfilling. Seeing patients come back to visit after they have been discharged brings great joy to me. Often they do not remember many of our interactions but their families do! It is great to see them doing well and getting back to life! However, many times due to the nature of our work, the illness ends in death. Being able to provide the support families need through this time is priceless. Helping them gain a nugget of joy amidst the sorrow—having a last word, being able to tell that person how much they meant to them, being able to hold them one last time—are gifts we can give that have an impact on people for the rest of their lives.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
The electronic medical record . . .
What do you do in your spare time?
I spend my spare time with family, especially our four grandchildren. We love watching them grow, showing them the things we value and just plain old spending time together. We also love to trail ride and camp with our horses. We travel mostly in the East and find new places to explore and ride. We love to take care of our farm—the place I grew up—and we are in the process of making it our own after the loss of my parents. There are many memories here and many new ones in the making! Reading, listening to music and enjoying the nature in the country really fill our days.
What advice would you give to current Laurel girls?
Stick with learning. Keep an open mind. Don’t over-commit to activities that leave you crushed for time. Enjoy it while you are young! Don't look back with regret—look forward with optimism!
What is the most surprising life lesson you have learned so far?
This is a hard question . . . I think in our teens and twenties we have a vision of what we want out of life, but it’s rarely the reality of what happens. Many forces move us this way and that, changing the direction of our paths as we go along. Being open to those forces and accepting the challenge they often bring can totally change the way your life plays out. Learning to live with disappointment and making lemonade out of lemons can allow us to make the most of what we are dealt. A quote from Forrest Gump that really spoke to me when I first saw the movie is —
“I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze. But I, I think maybe it's both.”