Uncommon Achievement


By Kate Knollenberg

Kay Sanders

Sanders (left) celebrates with her husband, Joe (right) during a retirement celebration at TCU. Sanders served as director of the School of Nurse Anesthesia from 2003 to 2019.  (Photo by BJ Lacasse)

When Kay Sanders was contacted by TCU, she wasn’t asked to join the School of NurseAnesthesia – she was asked to create it. In 2019, during her last semester before retirement, Sanders reflected on all that’s been accomplished.

We have those days when we find ourselves with nothing to do; minutes can seem like hours, we check the clock and it seems like the arrows are stuck. On the other hand, there are days that fly by. You look out the window one second and it’s bright as day and the next it is the dead of night.

If you think about a large task, maybe the most challenging project you’ve done, there were probably a lot of days that flew by. 

Now, imagine creating a school from the ground up and enrolling students in the same year. That doesn’t happen without countless days of opening the blinds and expecting to see sun, but being met by darkness instead.

Kay Sanders, founder of the School of Nurse Anesthesia at TCU, understands this feeling all too well. She took an idea and brought it to fruition in one year. Most notably, she established a program where uncommon achievement is common.

Let’s go back to the beginning, when a past dean of Harris College met Sanders at a nursing conference. Dr. Sanders is an expert in the field, it is easy to admire her knowledge and credentials; a dean would be foolish to not want to join forces. Thankfully, TCU convinced Sanders to take a chance.

Sanders was at the top of the field; she could have rested on her laurels at Texas Wesleyan and eventually retired knowing she did great things in the field of Nurse Anesthesia.

Fortunately for Harris College, that is just not who she is. Once Sanders linked arms with TCU, she broke ground immediately on what is now a prestigious program.

Thinking back on the moment of transition from Texas Wesleyan – a veteran program – to a mere idea at TCU she would tell herself, “It is going to be fabulous, it is going to be worth all of the hard work, just keep going.”

“We started the program in 2003 and got accreditation in the same year” said Sanders. 

It is uncommon to get a program accreditation in one year, but most programs don’t have someone like Kay Sanders in charge.

Not only had she already been the head of another program, she served on the executive board of the council for accreditation for four years, so this achievement is not shocking.

Sanders credits the swift accreditation process to her experience directing a nurse anesthesia program and the opportunity to travel the U.S. and look at other programs, taking note of what works and what doesn’t.

“Kay Sanders is considered an innovator both nationally and internationally, and not in the past tense,” said Vaughna Galvin ’05, a member of the inaugural class of nurse anesthetists and an assistant  professor of professional practice at TCU. “She is open to anything that will meet the needs of this profession and the students, she is willing to think outside the box.” 

Sanders’ list of credentials could fill pages, but part of her that is simply unmatched is her character.

“[Dr. Sanders] has set a precedent for nurse anesthesia education of making it hospitable for the students,” Galvin said. “She remembers everyone by name, and knows their kids names, their spouses, their families and where they are from. She has really set a precedent for all of us to make sure we keep things personal and recognize the work these students are putting in to be here.”

Intelligence aside, Dr. Sanders is humble, and kind. Lots of people are qualified to do great things, but creating an environment where students are happy and walk out of the hardest test of their lives laughing and smiling is uncommon.

Although she humbly refutes, this academic climate of joy doesn’t happen overnight; it is built into the foundation of a program. With Sanders in the lead, it makes perfect sense that the students in this school are genuinely happy.

Sanders explained that “[students] are happy, but that does not mean this is not hard … many of our students are married, a lot have children and they all make sacrifices to be here.” Their happiness is even more remarkable with all things considered.

It is easy to see a smile and assume the students are enjoying their time in the program, but current nurse anesthesia student Katey Steffen backed up everything Sanders said. Steffen was set on TCU after noticing the personality of the program. 

“From top to bottom, it seems there is a standard here that comes from Dr. Sanders,” Steffen said.

Since joining the program, Steffen has no regrets, 

“From the office ladies to the very top, the faculty treat the students like adults,” Steffen said. “This standard was established by Dr. Sanders”.

Galvin recognized the extraordinary effort Sanders put forth to get to know her students, “She took several students out on Fridays to grasp their thoughts on the program, but mostly to get to know them.”

This program was founded on uncommon achievement, so it is no surprise that the students have not dropped the bar. 

Sanders said that, in this program, uncommon achievement is common and she has the facts to back it up.

“We have been graduating students since 2005,” Sanders said. “Our students have won the blue ribbon for research at the national meeting twice … this year a graduating senior won the blue ribbon, and we have a graduate who took the only student director spot on the council of accreditation.” 

The list goes on, supporting the assertion that uncommon achievement most certainly is common here.

As Sanders prepares to embark on her most foreign challenge yet – retirement – she knows it is the students she will miss most.

“They are the best and the brightest – truly amazing individuals,” Sanders said.

Sanders will be dearly missed by those who had the pleasure of meeting her, especially those in who worked by her side in Harris College all these years.

It is fabulous Dr. Sanders; it truly is fabulous, so thank you. Thank you for long days that became nights, and for creating a place where students can achieve great success without neglecting their happiness.