Nursing Program Names Award for Alyssa O'Neill

The nursing program at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, has renamed an annual student award to honor Alyssa J. O’Neill, a student who died in September after suffering a grand mal seizure.

O’Neill, 18, was a freshman at Penn State Behrend. She planned to enter the college’s nursing program at the start of her sophomore year.

A portrait of Alyssa J. O'NeillThe day before her death, O’Neill had texted her mother, saying they should meet at Starbucks for a pumpkin spice latte. After her funeral, her parents, Jason and Sarah O’Neill, bought 10 of the drinks for strangers. The barista marked the cups – using purple, a color associated with epilepsy awareness – with #AJO.

That spurred a far broader pay-it-forward campaign. People paid for strangers’ meals, gas, groceries and layaway purchases. They sent #AJO photos from London, Iraq and the Canary Islands.

It’s still going. The #AJO Facebook page has more than 40,000 “likes,” several of them from students and faculty members who shared O’Neill’s passion for nursing.

“The pay-it-forward initiative represents giving without asking for anything in return but to keep giving,” said Jo Anne Carrick, coordinator of the nursing program at Penn State Behrend. “That’s what nurses do every day.”

With that in mind, and having been touched by the campaign herself – while buying groceries, she noticed an #AJO note explaining that her Sunday newspaper already had been paid for – Carrick asked the program’s faculty members to rename the annual Professional Nursing and Caring Award, which is given to the student nurse who demonstrates the most care and compassion in a patient care setting.

They agreed. The award, now called the Alyssa Josephine O’Neill Award for Professional Nursing and Caring, will be presented to the first recipient at the college’s honor’s convocation in April.