My Career Path: A Q&A session with Dr. Suzanne Burke-Lehman

Dr. Suzanne Burke-Lehman is the Director and Associate Professor of Nursing at St. Catherine University. This article is a Q&A session with Burke-Lehman about her career path. 

How did you know what you wanted to major in during college and what you wanted to do?

Burke-Lehman actually didn’t know right away what she wanted to major in during college, so she decided to choose exercise science and nutrition. She was one of the first group of high school students to do PSEO in Minnesota where she took classes at North Hennepin Community College and was able to transfer those credits to St. Kate’s. She soon realized that exercise science and nutrition was a new program with few  career opportunities; therefore, she needed to find a major that she was sure would get her a job after graduation.

“I couldn’t go to school, especially at St. Kate’s with the expense and not knowing that I could get a job afterwards, that would help me pay for student loans and bills,” says Burke-Lehman. She decided to switch into nursing and got a bachelor’s degree in nursing with a minor in exercise science and nutrition. Burke-Lehman got to work with a woman who had breast cancer in her first semester in nursing and she was sold in nursing. She said “I just loved what I was able to do with it.”

How do you balance family, life, friends, and your career?

“I was a student-parent and that was unusual at the time. I had a lot of choices to make during college such as time and energy and financial considerations. I wished that I had asked for help more and checked in because I wasn’t sure if people would understand my situation because it was kind of different and I felt like I had to prove myself a lot. So I was scared to reach out for support, and I was involved in a lot of co-curricular activities and a lot of stuff at St. Kate’s. I almost wished that  I would have done a little lesson taking care of myself more. There wasn’t a lot of help for student parents like access and success wasn’t there. I was very inexperienced in asking for help and support and it took me a long time to learn that and to speak up and to understand that I did need to get additional support and it was something that I had to learn.”

How do you manage stress?

“My friends and my support system was very important to me and just to have people to talk to were the things that helped me manage all of it and I just had to be very organized and use my time really well. It was very clear to me what my priorities were, so I made decisions based on my priorities and my highest priority was always my family. But then my goal was to finish my education, which was a huge priority as well and I could just see what a big difference that would make in my life.”

Reflecting on your career now, what advice would you give your younger self in college?

“Trust in the process but just know that if you’re curious and interested in life, opportunities will come to you. If you’re a person that is open to opportunities and learning in your profession, they’ll come to you. If you’re interested and passionate in what you do, I think that it is true that things and opportunities will come to you. You don’t need to rush and do it all at once and take your time. One thing I wish I had known as a student is that you can take care of yourself and be a good student. We want to do all the things and that’s crazy. Part of the message to my younger self is to not do what  I did, I could have done a lot and accomplished a lot, but also could have taken at  a slower pace and been more focused on having fun.”

What leadership qualities do you feel are vital today and why?

“It’s really important for a leader to be able to listen to multiple perspectives and genuinely listen. It’s really important that everybody as much as can happen get there with you that it’s a group process and that there is so much to be gained by listening to people that maybe have different points of view from you and to listen to people who don’t always have the opportunity to share their perspectives and there can be amazing results by doing that. It’s necessary to have in today’s world as a leader to listen to all the people and all the different voices.”

Are there specific leadership skills, etc., you feel are critical for women to have in today’s workplaces?

“Trusting that leadership doesn’t need to look the way that it’s always looked. The ways that women lead are different from the ways that men might lead. Women or the feminine have a lot to offer in terms of leadership, but it might look different. Part of that is trusting yourself as a women leader and listening to the ways that you want to lead. It might look a variety of ways and that things don’t need to look like they’ve always looked in terms of what leadership needs to look like. It can look a lot of different ways and that you don’t need to be an extrovert, you can be an introvert and be a powerful leader. Recognizing that your leadership is different from others and that is fine.”

What are vital tips for students to build their networks and resumes?

“Practice now and practice while you’re in school, that means networking with staff, faculty, and peers. School in my mind is like an opportunity to test out how you’re going to operate in the real world. One of Suzanne’s friend made a point to connect with people she didn’t know which kept expanding her network. If you’re a curious person and you’re genuinely interested in other people, network because you don’t want to use them, but because you want to get to know them more.”

What tips would you provide for students to find a mentor?

“There’s different levels of mentorship. Suzanne suggests that students find someone in a position that they see themselves in and someone everyday that they just admire to be their mentor. There’s also mentors through social media, so connect with them and learn some skills and experience from them and it can be informal. Learn to be open and be receptive to what they offer out there and put some into practice in your life. Email people such as on LinkedIn and ask to meet and discuss about their experience and careers and that is a good way to start a conversation to get to know somebody. Do it in little steps and keep learning and know that there are a lot of women leaders and professionals that are interested in helping and passing along their experiences and helping new professionals out there. It doesn’t hurt to ask and the most they can say is a no. You have to ask and put yourself out there.”

It was such a pleasure to interview Dr. Suzanne Burke-Lehman and learn about her career journey. Burke-Lehman provided amazing advice for our students and I will definitely be putting some of her advice to use. 

By Tia Yang
Tia Yang Career Assistant