Celeste Villanueva Retires Leaving Legacy of Simulation Learning and Mentorship

Talya Sanders

Long-time faculty member Celeste Villanueva retired last month with a 27-year track record of teaching and administrative successes that brought simulation and technology to the forefront at SMU. But her most lasting legacy is the generation of students and faculty who benefited from her mentorship along the way. 

“Celeste is an innovative leader, and her enthusiasm and can-do attitude are contagious,” said Jeanette Wong, assistant professor and executive director of SMU’s Health Sciences Simulation Center. 

“Celeste really has the students’ success at heart and strives to help faculty improve their skills and grow.”

Villanueva was a nurse anesthetist at Kaiser Permanente when a colleague first recruited her to help develop a new Program of Nurse Anesthesia at SMU. Over the next 16 years, she went on to serve as that program’s associate director and then program director, as it grew into the Anesthesia – Doctor of Nursing Practice Program (CRNA) program. In 2005, she launched SMU’s Health Sciences Simulation Center and served as its founding director until 2016. In 2018, she brought her passions for teaching excellence, simulation and immersive learning, and learning technology under one umbrella in SMU’s new Center for Innovation and Excellence in Learning, where she was founding director. As an administrator and associate professor, she rose in the ranks to become assistant vice president of academic affairs and stepped in to fill leadership gaps in several times of transition, including serving as interim provost and interim dean of the College of Nursing.

“Celeste is a perfect team member and an educational leader of the first order,” said Dr. Scot Foster, former academic vice president and provost. “She has great ideas and knows how to build consensus around them. Her great gift is her ability to implement any initiative she undertakes with transformative outcomes. Regardless of her many administrative titles, she moved fluidly among them and earned the trust and regard of all who comprised her thankful team members.”

A passion for innovation

An early adopter of using simulations for nurse anesthesia students, Villanueva led the creation of the state-of-the-art Health Sciences Simulation Center, which has grown to become one of the most advanced healthcare simulation facilities in the western United States. In partnership with Wong and other colleagues, they expanded simulation-based learning into all academic programs at SMU. Given the HSSC’s success over a few short years, SMU doubled the size of the Oakland HSSC and added simulation centers to the Sacramento, San Mateo, and Fresno campuses.

“What I love about SMU is that if you have an idea, if you want to be innovative, if you want to be creative, and you can back it up with evidence and make a rational case for it, you are empowered and supported to do it,” Villanueva said. 

She followed that path multiple times at SMU, including being the driving force behind the creation of the Center for Innovation and Excellence in Learning. She also pioneered initiatives like TeamSTEPPS@SMU, which strengthens teamwork and communication among healthcare professionals, and Connect to Success, which began as a partnership with Apple Higher Ed and works toward providing every SMU student with an ipad for learning. 

To ‘Mama Celeste,’ mentoring comes naturally 

“Mentoring is really the only way we can continue to ensure our profession — broadly as nurses and more specifically, for me, as nurse anesthetists — is successful at educating healthcare professionals for the future,” Villanueva said. “I love it, it doesn’t even occur to me that I’m mentoring. I’m just sharing knowledge. It comes naturally, and it’s the only way to be a good colleague and educator.”

Joe Janakes CRNA ’06 said her nickname “Mama Celeste” well-reflects the maternal way she mentors. He credits Villanueva with motivating him to mentor other nurses, and he relishes following in her footsteps to become the program director of SMU’s CRNA program, the role Villanueva had when they first met. 

“She holds the bar very high and inspires you to do better than you can. She sees potential beyond what people think their means are,” Janakes said. “She also laid an important foundation to diversify the nurse anesthesia field, and we couldn’t make strides in diversity without her unwavering support for it.” 

It’s not only students who benefited from Villanueva’s mentorship. “She taught me volumes about the critical importance of faculty development, new ways to learn through technology, and how to successfully implement critical innovative projects,” said Foster, who recently retired from SMU leadership. 

The next generations

Villanueva wants her legacy to be “one of innovation and creativity in education, to really inspire people to think about how we can do things better and differently, using technology according to best practices, grounded in literature.”

Her colleagues and alumni admirers are bringing her vision to life by funding a new scholarship in her name, the Celeste Villanueva Endowed Scholarship Fund. The fund will benefit students across all SMU programs, supporting individuals who embody her commitment to excellence and community.

“It’s humbling to know about this new fund. I’m proud that the scholarships will ensure all students are supported for success, regardless of their background,” she said.

“Celeste spearheaded SMU’s student success model, and this new endowed scholarship directly aligns with her vision for helping students thrive,” said Wong. “Now even students who didn’t get to learn directly from her will benefit from her wisdom.” 

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