By Juan Calvillo
Lurelean Gaines loves her students and the nursing program at East Los Angeles College, but she will be retiring, “To put my house in order.” Most who know Gaines would understand that this is part of her humor. She said her students often ask if her husband loves the ELAC campus. Gaines said they ask her this because she spends more time on campus and with the students in her department than at home.
Gaines has been at ELAC since the 1970s and is the chairperson of the Nursing Department. Her inspiration to become involved in the nursing profession stemmed from an acquaintance she knew as a young girl.
The acquaintance had a sister that was ill and spent time taking care of her. Gaines asked her father to take her to this acquaintance’s home so that she could help. This simple interaction spoke volumes of the type of person Gaines would become in adulthood.
Gaines said that originally the plan was to be a microbiologist, but she was constantly walking around interacting with her classmates when she finished her work. She realized that the line of work she was studying was not for her.
Gaines’ parents told her she needed to make a decision as to what exactly she wanted to do and she decided on nursing. It was her desire to help people and stand up for the underdog that pushed her into nursing.
“It was more gratifying. You know, I saw that I would be making a difference, doing something other than micro(biology). You know micro(biology) was interesting, and I love the research aspect, but it just wasn’t enough,” Gaines said.
After finishing her degree at Los Angeles City College, she started working at Los Angeles County University of Southern California Medical Center. There she was the charge nurse in the cardiology ward, with a staff of licensed vocational nurses and certified nursing assistants. During down time she started conducting classes with the nurses using situations with patients as learning tools.
Many of those that worked with her and learned from her went on to become Registered Nurses and LVNs. This student-teacher interaction gave her pause, and a seed slowly began to grow in her mind about teaching.
“So I used to say, ‘gosh teaching is for later. I’m saving that for later.’ Then I thought, here I digress, and I thought, ‘oh I wanted to be a lawyer. You can always do law, when you get old,’” Gaines said.
Leaving the county hospital, she stayed working in the system moving into public health for some time. She then received her Masters of Science in Nursing from Cal State University Los Angeles and decided it was time to teach. Her first stop in teaching was at LACC, she also worked part time at ELAC. She said eventually she was hired at ELAC, but that initially some professors were not as welcoming. Luckily, Ginger Olson, a member of the higher committee at the time, made sure to explain that her higher was purely on merit and skill.
Gaines said seeing this type of support was good, but that she was raised to be strong and outspoken. An uncle once called her an amazon, despite only being five foot five inches. Gaines understood that it was meant to describe her strength of character.
At the time there were not many latinos in the nursing program, and some of the professors didn’t seem to like the changes happening on campus. Gaines said she always worked with and nursed latinos since her time in the county hospital and in public health.
“Most of the latinos were regulated to the LVN program. And that’s what I saw and I thought, ‘these students have taken all these courses and they’re going to do LVNs?’” Gaines said.
The environment was interesting to Gaines, and over the years it has changed to be much more inclusive. Walking into the Nursing Department the diversity is on display with Latino, Chinese, Armenian and even Russian speaking students.
Gaines’ concern for her students is what drives her to make sure they have all the opportunities possible. Where before some students would not try for the RN courses, Gaines encourages them to do it. It is this coupled with her leadership in the Nursing Department and her strength not to simply give in that is inspiring. Gaines has passed that on to her daughter and through simply being in the department, she tries to pass it on to the students.
She said that just recently a student emailed her saying she was not sure she could do well without extra time. The student received an email with large letters saying “relax”, followed by a simple but powerful message.
“You need to calm down. Because you know what you know. You’re very capable. So get it done,” Gaines said.
Believing in her students is second nature to Gaines. She said many of the students in the program and at ELAC have so much potential. To her, giving students support is what helps students grow into the careers and directions they truly want to inhabit.
ELACs own Academic Senate has high praise for Gaines, who was once a Vice President of the Senate, thanking her for her time, and leadership over the decades of her work on campus.
“She has helped others see the big picture for serving our students and the community. Her insights have helped me understand how to advance the college as a well-run institution,” President of the Academic Senate Jeffery Hernandez said.
Jean Stapleton, Chair of the Journalism Department, has been friends with Gaines for many years. The friendship they have fostered over the years has carried them through meetings as part of the ELAC Academic Senate and as department chairs.
Stapleton said that their friendship just happened and that they simply gravitated towards each other. She said the pair of department chairs were once asked to separate during a meeting. This happened when a rather long-winded vice president got tired of the funny remarks the friends made about his drawn out meetings. When Gaines was asked to move, Stapleton simply followed her and sat next to her again. This is the friendship the pair has created over the years.
Gaines’ work ethic and commitment to charities have always been seen with admiration from Stapleton. It was this coupled with her commitment to her students that Stapleton said was impressive. She said that Gaines is constantly on campus early and will leave late because of this.
“I have so much respect for her because of her integrity. She has so much integrity and so much caring about other people. She cares so much about students and how what we do in the (Academic) Senate or with the Nursing Board or anything like that, ‘How is it going to affect the students.’ That’s always her first concern, how will the students be affected by this. I think the world of her,” Stapleton said.
Retiring won’t be the end of the story for Gaines, as she will continue to affect change in countless other leadership roles and charities. She has worked with the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association. Gaines is also vice president of the board of the Guibord Center, where all faiths come together and interact. She is also a leader at her Episcaplin Church as a canon.