Feature Stories Alumni: Shaunna Lai ’05: Nursing with a blend of science and empathy

Professional photo of Lai
Shaunna Lai '05
Feature Stories Alumni: Shaunna Lai ’05: Nursing with a blend of science and empathy
Shaunna Lai ’05: Nursing with a blend of science and empathy

When her dreams of becoming a nurse felt out of reach, Lai’s education at UMass Dartmouth was supported by scholarships, inspiring her to give back to current students in the same way.

Along the sandy shores of Cape Cod, Shaunna Lai ’05 was raised in a Marston Mills home by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. Despite these obstacles in her childhood, Lai blossomed with a kind heart and compassionate soul from her mother’s unwavering resiliency in times of adversity. She always knew everything would fall into place eventually, even if the tunnel was dark and the light at the end seemed far away.

When she began taking night classes to start her academic career at UMass Dartmouth, she knew for certain that she wanted to pursue a profession where she could help others in profound ways. It was her calling to be a nurse and bridge the gap between science and empathy to deliver the best possible patient care. However, when she was accepted into UMass Dartmouth’s rigorous nursing program, she couldn’t stop this one thought from crossing her mind: How will I afford all of this?

Lai got busy applying to several endowed and current use scholarships that amounted to a full ride, giving her the financial boost that she needed to thrive in the nursing program. While she still had a part-time job doing dialysis at the Cape Cod Artificial Kidney Center to cover any additional expenses, she was able to dedicate the majority of her time to acing her classes.

“During the first week of classes, I remember one of my teachers saying ‘Look to your left. Now look to your right. Half of you won’t be here when you graduate,’” Lai said, bearing witness to the comprehensive nature of UMass Dartmouth’s nursing program. “And it was true. When we started classes, there were 104 of us. When we graduated in 2005, there were only 52 of us left standing.”

Despite the pressure to succeed, Lai put her head down in her textbooks and remained focused on her end goal: a diploma that will open a new world of opportunity for her. She said, “Someone told me that in order for you to get anywhere in life, you have to put in the work. I didn’t want to be one of the students that didn’t make it through this program.”

When Lai walked across that stage at the 2005 Commencement ceremony, she had a pep in her step knowing that she received an extraordinary nursing education and wouldn’t have to stress over student loans post-graduation. She began her career at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA and is still there 21 years later as a surgical and burn trauma ICU nurse, adding a nursing concierge business along the way.

Photo of Lai in white coat
Lai proudly started her own nursing concierge business, La Vida Concierge.

“When I attended UMass Dartmouth, it opened up my world to different types of people with different cultures,” said Lai, who still uses the same organizational and prioritization tactics that she developed as a student doing clinicals. “It made me a better nurse in the long run.”

Such skills came to be of crucial importance when Lai volunteered to work in the COVID-19 ICU during the height of the pandemic. For a good year and a half, she cared for patients diagnosed with the virus, offering support in ways that extended beyond their physical health. She was often the only person comforting them at their bedsides, the only source of light and hope in the darkest of situations.

“That what being a nurse is really all about,” Lai explained. “I always say that the perfect nurse is in the middle of empathy and science. You want to be able to be the one that holds their hand, but also be able to know what to do medically.”

Inspired by this philosophy and the desire to give back, Lai hopes to perpetuate this sentiment by supporting the education of current students. By establishing several scholarships for UMass Dartmouth students, her philanthropy fosters a new generation of nurses that are equipped with not only the necessary skills and knowledge but also with the compassionate approach that defines exceptional patient care.

Paving the way for future Corsairs

Despite being miles away from her alma mater, Lai makes a consistent effort to remain connected to UMass Dartmouth by giving back in ways that helped her as a student. She said, “I always knew that I wanted to give back. When I met my husband, Christopher Lai, his family had a long history of giving back to their alma maters, and I realized the impact that this school had on my trajectory in life. So, we decided to start a scholarship 10 years ago.

“I wanted to give it specifically to a student in the nursing program who was the first person in their family to graduate college,” she continued. “That was very important to me because that was me at one point in time.”

Photo of Lai family
Shaunna and her husband, Christopher, give back to inspire their two children to grow up with kind, generous hearts.

Since establishing that first scholarship, Lai has offered her help in more ways that UMass Dartmouth can count. From adding more scholarships under the Lai family name to donating funds to specific needs and special initiatives on campus, she’s committed to changing lives in the way that hers was changed. Although many are inspired by her philanthropy, she insists it’s the recipients who are the inspiration.

“When I meet these recipients, they are so inspirational to me,” Lai said. “The thing about having no money to go to college is that there could be someone who’s so worthy and so smart, but never think they could do it because they don’t have the means. They’ll never become what they could be.

“We as a family give back because people need us to. I want to show my kids that it’s not easy for everyone in life,” she continued. “So many people struggle, and education is not always equal. But through generosity, you can make a difference.”