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Family loss inspired doctoral nursing student’s journey

by Elena Gomez

Anthonia “Tonia” Okoh finished her final semester as a full-time Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) student this spring at USD’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science. Taking a full-time doctoral course load would be enough for many students, but Okoh has been juggling the program while working as an emergency nurse and taking care of her three children during her husband’s deployments with the U.S. Navy.

The drive that pushes her through these challenges is personal. It’s rooted in her desire to help others after dealing with her family’s unfortunate medical experiences.

“I don’t want what happened to my parents to happen to someone else. At the end of the day, if I have the knowledge, maybe I’ll be able to save someone’s life,” she says.

While at home in Nigeria, Okoh got her first introduction to patient care by helping her mother take care of her father after he had a stroke.

Shortly after that, her mom was misdiagnosed and passed away just two days after undergoing surgery. These tragic memories have stayed with Okoh, and ultimately encouraged her to transition from a career in computer science to nursing.

After moving to the U.S. to be closer to her husband — who is currently deployed on the USS Miguel Keith ESB-5 Gold — she applied to USD’s Master’s Entry Program in Nursing (MEPN) in 2015 and was accepted.

“It was rough. It’s an accelerated program,” she says.

And while the work was fastpaced and intense, one of the most difficult parts was thinking about her mom. She remembers getting teary-eyed in the back of the classroom, reflecting upon how the knowledge she was gaining could have, possibly, saved her mom. At one point in the program, she had to face these memories head-on during a class exercise where students were encouraged to share something about themselves.

Before this, Okoh hadn’t talked openly about her mom’s passing eight years prior — even to her siblings and husband. That day, it all changed.

“A huge load of weight was lifted off of me so I could give myself to nursing and serve the people I’m supposed to be taking care of, as if they were my own family members,” she shares. “I couldn’t take care of my parents back then because I lacked the knowledge or my siblings lacked the knowledge. When I see my patients — what I’m doing for them, I’m doing for my parents — I will take care of them to the best of my abilities.”

After graduating from the MEPN program in 2017, Okoh got a job as an emergency nurse. But, a few years later, she felt the urge for her next life challenge when COVID hit. “We were losing a lot of nurses. I said to myself, ‘What’s next? I’ve grown from being a novice in the nursing field,” she said.

So, she decided to apply to USD’s Doctor of Nursing Practice in Emergency Care program and started in the fall of 2020, after considering other school programs — many devoid of clinical simulations. Not only has the program helped her as a nurse, most importantly, it’s encouraged her to look at the role of the patient-nurse rapport. One exercise, in particular, helped Okoh: the simulation training, an experience where nursing students are paired with an actor who acts like a real patient. serve as a trusted advisor to some of the country’s most generous philanthropists,” he writes. He is married to Stephanie Brooks Pickering, a native of Palm Springs, California, and father to Colin, Olivia and Grant. In October of 2022, his book, Better at the Broken Places, was released. “It tells my story of healing, of pursuing justice for myself, and of my continued efforts on statute of limitations reform to affect change in the systems that continue to protect child sex abusers from prosecution,” he says.

As an ER nurse, she was trained to keep her patients alive without much time for anything else. So, it was no surprise that, during her simulation exercise, she was yelling out commands and keeping patients’ appointments short — like she would in the ER. After the exercise, the actor shared that while Okoh obviously knew what she was doing, as a patient, they didn’t feel any connection to her.

“I read that and I was heartbroken. I thought I did well. I thought that’s what was needed,” she recalls. “Getting that feedback, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is how a patient perceives me if I’m at clinical or at work, someone who is devoid of emotions. She’s just treating their symptoms, medicating them and discharging or admitting them.’ There is really not enough time to connect deeply with patients in an ER setting,” she notes.

This was a full-circle moment for Okoh — teaching her the importance of building rapport with her patients, in the same way she wanted someone to connect with her own family when they were in the hospital. Now that she’s graduated, she’s looking to continue her work in the emergency department with a new sense of commitment to ensuring the delivery of patient-centered care. And even, possibly one day, bringing her nursing education back home to Nigeria.


TODD JASNOW (JD) was recently promoted to senior corporate counsel with CoStar Group’s in-house counsel department.



BROWN (MA) is the editor in chief of The Journal of Feminist Family Therapy



TONYA CROSS (BBA), ’04 (JD) was promoted to executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Lytx.

KATHLEEN HUGHART (MA) writes, “Since 2000, I have been an active participant in government issues, such as nuclear weapons reduction and investigations of the Pentagon. I visited Cuba five times and advocated for ending the U.S. embargo against the country. I was news editor for the Ventura County & Coast Reporter in 1993 and taught at bilingual SpanishEnglish elementary schools in Ventura County. I have a bilingual certificate of competence in Spanish-English.”


ADRIAN BARBOUR (MSGL) writes, “Attended FT while employed by General Dynamics’ information technology division in San Diego.”

BRANDIE SINHA (BA), ’06 (MS) moved from Hong Kong to Dubai.


VICTOR RAMOS (BBA) was recently promoted to assistant general counsel at Sikich LLP, a top -10 accounting and consulting firm, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois.


JARED SMITH (BS/BA) was promoted to principal at Fish & Richardson in January 2023. He was recognized for his pro bono service by the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program in 2018 with its Pro Bono Publico Award (i.e., lawyer of the year). Before joining Fish, he was a senior systems engineer at Raytheon and then Northrop Grumman for a total of eight years. He helped develop the Ship Self Defense System for U.S. aircraft carriers and the IP-based communications system for the U.S. Navy’s Triton unmanned aerial vehicle. In 2015, he received his JD cum laude from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, where he was a staff editor of the Hastings Science & Technology Law Journal . Jared earned a Master of Science in systems architecture and engineering from the University of Southern California.


CAPT. ALEXANDER NICHOLS (BA) is a licensed master of vessels up to 3000GT [gross tonnage], with Cayman Islands endorsement. He is currently sailing as the chief officer on a 220-foot superyacht in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.


OVALLE (MA) was named Google’s head of global procurement responsibility strategy and operations. In this role, she leads strategy and operations for Google’s environmental, social impact and governance, which includes meeting Google’s net zero and supplier diversity goals by driving responsibility, inclusivity and sustainability for Google and its supplier partners. She remains engaged in the nonprofit sector, where her volunteer leadership includes serving as vice chair of Balboa Park’s Museum of Us and as a cabinet member of the Ocean Discovery Institute.



JOHNSON (BA) reports that she got a new job that came with a promotion working in the medical device industry in regulatory affairs.