mary capenMary Capen: Explorer at Heart

Centralia College Nursing Professor Mary Capen loves a good book and a great adventure. A lifelong reader, she often becomes infatuated with a certain writer. She once read all of Hermann Hesse’s work and this year, she’s hooked on Dickens. “If I really like an author, I’m probably going to read everything they wrote,” she said.

Unlike some, her exploits are not limited to the page. As a young woman, she set off into the world to see what she could discover. She took a road trip across the United States and journeyed to Nepal and Thailand. She recently traveled to Europe, and hopes to go to Guatemala next summer. “I learned a lot by leaving and going to a third world country when I was 20,” she said. “You can’t believe that it’s the same planet you live on. The psychology is so different.”

After returning to the States, Capen found a job as a caregiver. She thought it was just a way to replenish her bank account but discovered much more. “I found it to be the most rewarding job I ever had,” she said. “I didn’t know you could feel rewarded in what you did. So I stayed.”

After her daughter, Julia, was born, Capen took her to work with her. This flexibility was another important benefit of the job and, combined with her natural affinity for the work, spurred her on to get her LPN and RN from Centralia College. Thanks to scholarships, she graduated debt-free.

While in school, Capen put her skills to good use as a healthcare assistant at an internal medicine office and in an adult family home. She took her daughter to work at the family home with her, which was the perfect fit for a single mom. “I loved it and I loved geriatrics,” she said. “That knowledge was super helpful all through my life.”

Her accumulated wisdom proved especially helpful when her father was diagnosed with early onset dementia. During what can be a bewildering time, Capen’s experience provided peace and insight. “Families who don’t have that experience have such a rougher time,” Capen said. “We all had a really clear understanding of what was going on.”

After graduating from Centralia College’s RN program, Capen went to work at a walk-in clinic. “I was the only triage nurse in the office, so I learned a lot,” she said.

Capen was then hired at Providence clinic, where she became trained in a variety of settings. “I started assisting in surgery and then with C-sections,” she said.

Along the way, she decided to go back to school to earn her degree, which had become an important qualification in the industry. She earned her bachelor’s from the University of Phoenix and her master’s from Grand Canyon University. “I loved online schooling,” she said. “The schedule was really important to me so I could spend time with my daughter.”

Of all her interests and responsibilities, Capen is crystal clear on where her priorities lay. “I wanted to spend as much time as I could with her,” she said. “I want her to know that I’m here. She’s the top priority.”

While she was completing her master’s, a teaching job opened at Centralia College. Capen was a natural fit. She especially enjoys shepherding in the next generation of nurses. “They get really stressed out in nursing school,” she said. “We help them find resources so they can make it to their goals and we encourage them to take care of themselves throughout the program. It’s a stressful career but I think being a nurse makes it easier to be a good person. You’re not judgmental to patients. Your job is to take care of them, not to make them think like you do. You just accept them in all sorts of forms. That, in general, has helped me become a better teacher and a better person.”

Capen earned tenure in April 2019. “It’s nice,” she said. “I feel like getting tenure means you’ve kind of proven you can teach and get the feedback from students. That’s what means the most to me.”

Now she’s shifting her focus to departmental goals like earning national accreditation and completing a 35-page simulation manual. “It’s hugely important for the growth of the program,” she said. “And national accreditation will allow our students to work anywhere.”

Capen thoroughly enjoys working at Centralia College and takes advantage of every opportunity it offers. She’s taken several classes out of sheer enjoyment, including a particularly memorable observational astronomy class last summer. “I saw all Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings and Andromeda,” she said. “It was really cool.”

She’s currently filling in as the Outdoors Club advisor. The group engages in a wide variety of outdoor adventures including mushroom picking, clam digging, backpacking, and more.In her spare time, she paints, gardens, crochets and, of course, reads as much as she can.

She and Julia, now 16, recently returned from a trip to Paris. Capen was excited to share her love of travel with her daughter. “We got to see Notre Damebefore it burnt,” she said.

She also recently hiked to the top of Mount Saint Helen’s with her sister. “I wanted to do it before I was 40,” she said. “We prepared ourselves really well.” Next she has her eye on Mount Adams and, perhaps someday, even Rainier.

When asked what she’s most proud of in her life, Capen said, “I’m most proud of not giving up. I create goals for myself and I usually always reach them. I knew I could climb Mount Saint Helens because I can do goals. Getting my master’s degree was a goal. You can get overwhelmed but I always have little goals to get to the big goals. I meet my goals and I’m not easily discouraged.”