WCU-Ontario Nursing Faculty Spotlight: Leigh Holley, DNP, MSN-Ed, RN

For Dr. Leigh Holley, what started out as a “wonderful happy accident” has turned into a proud, passionate career full of “unbelievable opportunities.”

Now, as the campus dean of nursing at West Coast University-Ontario, Holley said she looks forward to sharing her 25 years of bedside and teaching experience with the next generation of healthcare workers.

Born in the birthplace of Elvis — Tupelo, Mississippi — Holley initially graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in psychology, but soon found herself “unemployable.”

“I looked around and said ‘OK, what can I do that, quite honestly, would help me just make a paycheck?’ Because nursing was not on my radar,” she said.

While earning her associate nursing degree, Holley said her outlook changed during clinical visits as she began interacting with patients.

“That’s when it clicked. I was like, ‘This is the profession for me.’ It became about so much more than just a paycheck,” she said. “The paycheck now is the result, it’s not the goal.”

After years at the bedside, Holley found herself teaching a class of medical assistants and loving every minute of it. But while an experienced nurse, Holley said she was unable to teach advanced material due to her lack of formal education.

“I was very limited by my little associate degree so that was when I made the determination to go back to school,” she said. “I’ve spent the last decade pretty much in school, advancing my degree and broadening my scope of practice in the nursing education realm. My focus is still to protect the patients. I just do it in a different way now. I do it through educating excellent nurses.”

Proud of the fact, Holley is quick to point out that nurses are always considered one of the most trusted professions.

“That’s not by accident. We are the ones out there who are taking care of them, laughing with them, crying with them, praying with them, sometimes just sitting and being silent and holding a hand,” she said.

“I don’t think there is a more noble thing out there — and, of course, I get it. I’m biased but I am just so proud of my profession and — if you can’t tell — I love my profession. For something that I’ve literally stumbled into just looking for a paycheck… there’s got to be something divine intervention there because it just could not have worked out any better.” 


What’s the biggest message or lesson you try to teach as a nurse educator?

When I went back to nursing school to get my doctorate, my dad — of all people — said, ‘Well, if you’re gonna get a doctorate, why don’t you just be a doctor?’ And I’m like, ‘Dad, I’m a nurse. And let me explain to you the primary difference between medicine and nursing.’ And that is, the heart that we have with our patients. We have a different approach. We have a different outlook. We have different goals and they are all incredibly patient-centered. I figured that out from the first moment in my little ADN program when I started interacting with the patients. That was really when it clicked for me — that this isn’t just a job, because quite frankly, for what we do the pay is never enough. It’s never enough, but it’s not about the pay — it’s about the patients. And so that, for me, is what made all of the difference and as I go through my day-to-day at West Coast, that’s what I try to help the students understand: You have one job as a nurse and it’s to protect your patients — that’s it.

Has the role of nursing ever been more vital now?

We were talking last week in one of our leadership meetings and I made the statement: Nurses are the Marines of healthcare. We are the first in and last out. We are the ones on the frontlines and does that mean that we’re not scared of things like COVID-19? Of course not. We are human and we are vulnerable and we’re just as scared as anybody else, but this is who we are. This is what we do and that’s what sets us apart.

Is there anything about you that would surprise most people?

I can think of a couple. First, I love hip hop and rap music. And secondly, I actually gave birth to four babies in 18 months. I had a singlet and then I had triplets. Most people don’t know that about me and when they find out they go, “Wait, what?”

Go back to the rap music: Who are your favorite rappers?

You know, I’m an old school girl. I love Eminem. I love Jay-Z. I think he’s a lyrical genius. I like Kanye too.

What’s your one piece of advice for future nurses?

Go back to school earlier. I wish I had advanced my career — or my education — earlier than I did. I don’t have any regrets. I think those years at the bedside are what made me into a good educator but I wish that I had done it earlier, because I feel like you can have a one-to-one impact, nurse to patient, when you’re at the bedside. But once you become a nursing educator, for those of us who truly love what we do, we redirect all of that energy that we were giving to our patients and we start to invest that into our students. I think the impact that you have as an educator is exponential as opposed to just the one-to-one, so I wish I had done it earlier.

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