Leslie A. Parker's speech for the Spring 2023 doctoral commencement

Leslie Ann Parker, Ph.D., is a professor in the UF College of Nursing’s Department of Biobehavioral Nursing Science, an adjunct professor in the College of Medicine and a nurse practitioner with more than 30 years of experience in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. 

Thank you, President Sasse!

Class of 2023, not only did you earn a doctoral degree, but you did so from a top-5 public university. During a global pandemic. Congratulations! 

I celebrate your accomplishments, your dedication to your studies, your resilience, your success and your path to becoming the next generation of scholars, scientists, educators, health care professionals and experts.

Each of you has faced both challenges and opportunities in your educational and professional journey. And now, you face a turning point.  

After today your life will change and will likely change dramatically. Therefore, in preparation for this voyage, I have three questions for you. 

My first question is What do you WANT your life to look like?  

What is going to motivate you to get up each and every morning? What is going to energize you to go to work?

In other words. What will be your ZING? 

To me, zing is your sparkle, your passion, your zest. It’s what makes your professional world go round.  But more importantly, your zing is the footprint you will leave in this world. 

A photo of a five year old girl in a dress outside.


This is my zing. This is Allie. Allie is 5 years old. Her current professional goals include starting kindergarten in the fall.  

Allie is not my daughter. Allie is not my niece. I don’t see her every day, I don’t speak to her on the phone or send her birthday presents. In fact, I have seen her only once in the last 4 years.

Yet Allie is still my zing. She is what makes my professional world go round. She is what gives my work meaning. She is the footprint I will leave in this world.  

You might ask yourself – Why is she her zing? 

A premature infant


This is why. 

This is the same little girl, 5 years earlier when she was born 16 weeks too early and stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit at UF Health for 82 days. While she was in the hospital, I saw her many, many times and cared for her while she struggled to breathe, to eat, and to grow.    

Admission to the NICU is a devastating experience. Not only is it traumatic for the baby, but it is incredibly stressful for their parents, siblings, grandparents and all the people who love them. The average time a baby born very premature stays in the hospital is 70 days – that’s a long time. That’s a lot of trauma and these babies and their families need considerable care and support.  

Allie’s story is not unique. It is not unusual.  In fact, in the US, nearly 10% of all infants are admitted to the NICU. 

And there is my zing… I want my footprint in this world to be making the NICU journey easier for Allie, and for ALL the Allies of this world and their families. 

What will be your zing? 

Some of you will leave in this world a footprint that some might consider huge. You might cure cancer, solve world hunger or invent a robot to mow our lawns.

Others of you will leave a smaller footprint but one that may be equally as meaningful.  You might help a group of deaf students learn to communicate or assist individuals in navigating through their lives with improved mental health. You might bring joy through your artistic endeavors.

Some of you have known for years how you will make a difference in this world and you have dedicated your life thus far to pursuing this dream.

Others may be thinking – I don’t know my zing. I can’t even envision what my footprint will be. 

That’s okay.  Finding your zing is not always easy, it is not always straightforward, and it often hits you when you least expect it.

This gets me to my second question ….. Will you be open to change, to navigating the curves in the road that might completely change your perspective? Will you be open to new experiences; to opportunities that could bring you closer to discovering how you will leave a footprint in this world?
My own professional journey has not been smooth, it has not been easy, and it has generally not been well planned. In fact, if you told me 20 years ago, that I would be a nurse scientist – I would have laughed. I would have told you that I would never ever be involved in research – I would have told you that it was just too boring for me.  

But boy was I wrong. As a nurse practitioner, I can improve the lives of only a handful of infants at a single NICU, but through collaboration with the outstanding faculty and staff at the University of Florida, our research positively impacts the health of hundreds of infants all over the world. And that is certainly not boring.

I am often asked why I made the decision to obtain a doctoral degree 20 years after graduating with a master’s degree.

I have perfected a very professional sounding answer. My answer is, quote, …… “While working as a nurse practitioner in the NICU, I encountered numerous questions that could only be answered by conducting large research studies. In order to be in a position to answer these questions, I needed to obtain a PhD.”   

But today, for the first time, I’m going to share a secret. This answer couldn’t be further from the truth. 

My decision to obtain a PhD wasn’t part of some revelation or grand strategic plan. In fact, I made the decision in approximately 20 minutes during the middle of a faculty meeting. It had absolutely nothing to do with research. I made the decision to obtain a PhD because at that particular juncture in my career, it was the only way for me to keep my teaching job, which I loved.

What happened next changed my life. As a PhD student, and against my better judgement, I fell in love with research. I knew I would spend the rest of my career investigating ways to help infants and their families in the NICU. 

Someone’s professional journey changes over time, is often messy, and can completely take one by surprise. The key is to be open. In fact, if I had opened my mind earlier in my career and not followed the dogma of “I’m never going to be a researcher,” I believe I could have made a greater difference in the NICU. 

Open your mind, embrace the unknown, consider the unattainable.  What you think your professional life will look like now will change in 5,10, or 20 years. And that is wonderful. 

These professional adventures can be amazing and can even be life changing.      

Your doctoral degree from the University of Florida will provide you with numerous opportunities.  So my third and final question for this morning is this: When faced with new challenges and opportunities, what will be your answer?  

I challenge each of you to say “yes.”

Say “yes” to opportunities that will move you forward in your career, challenge you, help you meet your professional goals, or bring you joy. 

Say yes to opportunities that may scare you. When that little voice inside your head says, I’m not smart enough, I don’t have enough experience, why would they want me?  I challenge you to push those self-inflicted limits from your mind. If you say yes, what happens next might surprise you, you may find you can do it and do it well.  

I truly believe that my professional journey was created by “just saying yes.” Yes to becoming a nurse, yes to becoming a nurse practitioner, yes to obtaining my PhD, and yes to working here at the University of Florida.

My hope for each of you is that by being brave and saying yes, you create a professional life that fulfills you, brings you joy and ultimately brings you closer to finding your zing.
Remember how extraordinary you are.  You are a Graduate of the University of Florida. You will be now and forever a part of the Gator Nation. You are an individual who will make a difference in this world.

As I conclude, I challenge you to remember my three questions.  

Will you be open to change, to new experiences and opportunities? Will you say YES when your mind says you aren’t good enough. 

And finally, what will be your Zing?  

As Steve Jobs so eloquently said; 

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work and the only way to do great work is to love what you do. 

Make finding what you love a priority. Make your Zing your thing. 

Congratulations to the class of 2023!  Go Gators and May the Fourth be with you!!

UF News May 4, 2023