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Philanthropy supports nursing education and career growth

By The Health News Team | February 1, 2024
Philanthropy supports nursing education and career growth

(Left to right) Ani Harter of Sharp Grossmont Hospital and Trevor Smith of Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center.

From a mother of two to a Navy veteran of over 20 years, anyone who is accepted or enrolled in a nursing program can apply for a scholarship through the Terrence and Barbara Caster Institute for Nursing Excellence.

Candidates can be an employee seeking to become a registered nurse, a nurse pursuing their PhD, or a nurse who wants to go into management. The main requirement is simply a desire to further their education and advance their career.

“Getting a degree is about your time and commitment to advancing yourself and, as a result, the nursing profession,” says Laurie Ecoff, vice president of the Caster Nursing Institute. “Part of that is enjoying the journey and being transformed by it.”

Laurie Ecoff at Sharp Memorial Hospital

Laurie Ecoff, vice president of the Caster Nursing Institute.

Since 2011, the Caster Nursing Institute has awarded 454 scholarships totaling over $1.9 million. More than $200,000 was awarded in 2023, an amount made possible through the Sharp HealthCare Foundation.

“We could not do what we do without the Foundation,” Ecoff says. “Everything we do is philanthropy-supported.”

‘Best decision I ever made’

Ani Harter knew of Laurie Ecoff long before she was a clinical nurse specialist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “She has a reputation for being an amazing nurse mentor and nursing leader we all aspire to be,” Harter says.

Even as Harter attended classes on how to write the perfect scholarship essay, prepared her recommendation letters and submitted her scholarship application, she still had “sticker shock” about the cost of tuition. After all, Harter, who has been with Sharp since 2015, and her husband have two young sons at home.

“Without the scholarship, it would be really hard for me to go back to school,” Harter says. “The doctorate degree is significant in terms of cost, and I was very worried.”

Harter received a scholarship and is in her first semester at the University of San Diego. She is on track to earn her doctorate in nursing (PhD) in 2026.

Harter feels the support of her efforts throughout Sharp, including from her leaders who permit her to work four 10-hour shifts, as opposed to five shifts of eight hours. This frees up her Thursdays so she can take three classes.

“It’s the best decision I ever made,” Harter says. “The scholarship has significantly alleviated the financial burden, so I can focus on continuing my education.”

Harter hopes to enhance her knowledge in conducting quantitative and qualitative research to improve patient outcomes.

“Laurie was someone who was super excited for me,” Harter says. “I’m so grateful that Sharp leadership supports us going back to school.”

Paying it forward

“For us, as leaders, we give these benefits to our employees but we don’t realize that we’re eligible for them as well,” says Trevor Smith, manager of cardiac services at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center.

Forty-four of the 103 scholarships the Caster Nursing Institute awarded in 2022 and 2023 were entry into practice scholarships. Caster also awarded 10 Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) scholarships.

For Smith, nursing is a second career. He didn’t arrive at Sharp from a typical residency program. Smith had a 21-year career in the Navy, retiring in 2013 after receiving three commendation medals for exemplary service and being named Sailor of the Year in 1995.

In the Navy, Smith was primarily a technician in cardiovascular care. He received his bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University and joined Sharp as a nurse in 2018, in part to connect more with patients.

“I thought when I left the military, I didn’t want to do leadership anymore,” Smith says. “I was going to go back to doing just straight patient care. I did to an extent, but there was a need here for leadership.”

In 2021, Smith was part of the first cohort of the Nursing Leadership Academy. Ecoff oversees the program via the James and Mary Jane Wiesler Center for Professional Growth at the Caster Nursing Institute.

Not only was Smith retained as a mentor for the second cohort graduating class, but he also received a Master of Science in nursing (MSN) scholarship through the Caster Nursing Institute. “You realize very quickly how much, at the leadership level, we all need each other to care about the mission,” Smith says.

Set to finish SDSU’s two-year accelerated master’s program in the spring of 2024, Smith encourages his staff to pursue certification and advanced education. “There’s a pathway from floor nurse up to corporate,” he says.

Ecoff agrees. “At this point in my career, I’ve had so many people who have supported me and mentored me along the way,” she says. “Being the mentor is my role now.”

Learn more about the Terrence and Barbara Caster Institute for Nursing Excellence; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

Laurie Ecoff

Laurie Ecoff


Laurie Ecoff is Vice President of the Terrence and Barbara Caster Institute for Nursing Excellence.

Ani Harter

Ani Harter


Ani Harter is a clinical nurse specialist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

Trevor Smith

Trevor Smith


Trevor Smith is the manager of cardiac services at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center.

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