Mother and Daughter Soon-to-Be Graduates Pursue Passions for Research and Art

'I'm already coming up with the Instagram caption. It's going to be something, like, "Yeah, I might have graduated college, but my mom got a Ph.D."'

Upcoming UConn graduates Amy and Kenni Zipf pose for a photo in the Widmer Wing of Storrs Hall

Upcoming UConn graduates Amy and Kenni Zipf pose for a photo in the Widmer Wing of Storrs Hall on April 4, 2023. Amy, a nurse at UConn Health, will earn a Ph.D. degree from the School of Nursing, while Kenni will earn a bachelor of arts degree from the School of Fine Arts upon their graduation in May. (Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

Amy Zipf truly loves being a nurse.

Countdown to Commencement word mark

“As a job, it met the practical needs of my family, which is why I pursued it in the first place,” she says, “and while I didn’t necessarily expect it, as a profession it has brought me great joy and personal satisfaction.”

Amy worked as a nurse in inpatient medicine for much of her nursing career. She’s now a nurse educator at UConn John Dempsey Hospital, where she helps prepare and facilitate orientation for newly hired nursing staff.

Her eldest child, Kenni Zipf, was 10 years old when Amy decided to become a nurse.

“I had four kids already, a family,” she says. “What could I do where jobs are guaranteed, where I could work at night – I could swap with my husband, and we didn’t have to pay for babysitting. I never imagined that my practice choice would turn into such a wildly rewarding professional career.”

Kenni was 6 when the family settled in the North End of Middletown. While she’s always loved art, she truly loves working with clay.

She found clay in high school, and she’s never looked back.

“I always loved building things, but I’d never worked with clay before,” she says. “Taking it as a junior in high school, I ran with it. I’ve been dedicating my whole life to it for the past six years, because I love it so much.”

Kenni has spent four of those last six years as an undergraduate at UConn – she’s a senior, currently the only Bachelor of Fine Arts student in the School of Fine Arts’ Sculpture/Ceramics program who is working exclusively in clay.

Amy has also been a UConn student these same four years – she’s been working toward her doctorate of philosophy at the UConn School of Nursing.

On Saturday, May 6, at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs, both mother and daughter will graduate from UConn – each on their own trajectory, but each hoping to influence the world in their own important way.

A Passion for Research

“We all get frustrated in our careers,” Amy says. “You just think, there’s got to be a better way. Why do we do this? This doesn’t make any sense. And that’s the beginning of research.”

What frustrates Amy is the struggle that new nurses encounter when they enter professional practice – often loaded with student debt for a degree they’ve worked hard to obtain, yet unprepared for what it’s like when they actually step onto the job.

“Right now, we are working in the midst of a significant nursing shortage across the country,” she says. “This shortage, along with my own experience working with newly graduated nurses, prompted my research.”

When Amy got into nursing, she never expected it to be anything more than bedside work – administering medication, taking vital signs, working with doctors and other providers, and delivering patient care.

“I didn’t even know there was something beyond that,” Amy says, but along the way, she was encouraged to pursue her master’s degree. “And then I came in contact with people who had Ph.Ds., and it was just wildly fascinating to see people working in research. I’m first-generation, and I was never around any sort of research. I had no concept of it.

“When I started to be around people who were conducting research, I realized there was a lot of work left to be done in the field of nursing, and it really intrigued me that I could be a part of it.”

That intrigue – and her hope in what is possible – fuels her research.

For her Ph.D. study, Amy studied new grad nurses in their first two years of practice and asked what they encountered when they transitioned from school into their professional life.

She’s hoping that post-graduation she’ll be able to continue the work and develop a program of research, with the ultimate goal of helping to facilitate strategies and interventions that better prepare new nurses as they enter the field.

“I am hopeful that, with this new knowledge, we can work together to better facilitate the transition of newly graduated nurses into professional practice,” she says.

A Passion for Representation

One thing that frustrates Kenni is how the feminine body is widely represented in Western culture.

“The average size for a woman in the United States– I think it’s 16, 18,” she says. “Where is that? Where do you see that? Where do you see that in stores, where all mannequins are a size two? Most people are not that size. The average person is much bigger than that.”

It’s a representation that she’s challenging through her art and her through her love of clay.

She received an IDEA Grant in Spring 2022 from the UConn Office of Undergraduate Research to pursue an exhibition called Art About US: Sculptures of the Fat Feminine Body, which opened on March 31 in the Department of Art & Art History’s Visual Art Installation Space.

The exhibition featured a series of life-size figure studies – different fragments and elements of the body – specifically using fat women and femme people as models, with clay types selected to match the model’s skin tone.

“There’s a myriad of reasons on why I wanted to do that, but the main reason is just because you don’t see it as often,” Kenni says. “I wanted to create art that I was proud of, that I was proud to display, and I also wanted to make something that added to this conversation of the beauty and the incredible normalcy of being fat. It just is. It’s not something bad or good, it just is. Having a body, you just are. There’s nothing good or bad about any part of that.

“I definitely did not have that same sentiment even just a few years ago, but through a lot of digging myself out of a serious hole, I have found a lot peace and a lot of joy being able to make these sculptures that represent a community that is not as represented.”

It’s a theme she also tackled this spring as part of the senior show for her BFA, though instead of life-size figures, the work is miniature, and instead of fragments, the figures are whole bodies – a series on a single character, made without models for reference and loosely based on her own image, with different expressions and emotions. They’re also made in a variety of colors – purple, blue, orange, yellow.

It’s a realistic depiction of the feminine body that Kenni believes should be seen more often.

“It’s not that it’s not existent, it’s just that it’s not well known enough, and it’s also not mainstream,” she says. “We’ve created this idea that everybody should be skinny when we don’t need to be. It’s not even real.”

Kenni will be working for her first year after graduation as an intern with the Sculpture/Ceramics program at UConn, where she’ll be doing clay and glaze research as well as working as a studio technician and helping with classes. And she hopes that she’ll be able to find a place outside of UConn to exhibit her work.

“That would be my dream, being able to put them somewhere and have them live somewhere for a little while,” she says. “People being able to see the work that I’ve done is the really cool part of making this kind of stuff. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find somewhere for them to be.”

Taking Opportunities

While they’re approaching different problems in different ways, there’s a lot of similarities in how Amy and Kenni have approached their educational experiences, and how they’re looking at their futures.

“Her being able to keep up having a healthy, balanced life, and also be able to have a whole degree fit into that as well, has been very awe inspiring,” says Kenni of her mother. “I mean, it’s nuts! People don’t do that very often, and it’s incredibly impressive. I think there’s a lot of work and time and skill, and just tenacity and perseverance and grit that’s been able to get her through all of this work that she’s been doing, which has been absolutely inspiring. And I think, besides that, it’s also just been something that has given me something to look forward to, because school is this thing – it’s just something to do for four years. You can get multiple degrees through your lifetime. You can learn a million different things. You don’t have to have one path in life.”

“She’s watched me go through what I might classify now, hesitantly, as a career in nursing, and this whole path is ever-changing,” Amy says. “What am I going to do with my career? I don’t know. What are you going to do with that Ph.D.? I don’t know. I think life is a lot like that. You take the opportunities that are handed to you, and you just keep going. See what happens. I think it’s rare for someone to find ‘that thing’ right away, that’s the thing forever, for all their days. I think as people we are prone to wanting something better and to be more impacting on the world, regardless of where we are in life.”

For right now, though, they’re just planning for May 6.

They’re ordering their regalia, finishing up their coursework, and deciding where they’re going to take their graduation pictures – together – on the same day that they’ll both be walking across the Jorgensen stage.

“I have been telling her that I’m already coming up with the Instagram caption,” Kenni says, “It’s going to be something, like, ‘Yeah, I might have graduated college, but my mom got a Ph.D. Say hello to Dr. Amy Zipf!’”