Taking flight: How Creighton helped shape an Air Force Colonel

Apr 12, 2024

After Creighton helped prepare Kirsten Nichols, BS’01, DDS’05, for success, she’s spent 20 years making an impact within the Air Force. Now, she leads the Department of Defense’s largest dental service.

Featured Testimonial About Creighton University

With her two hands on a flag pole, Kristen Nichols smiles in a picture with her commander

By Jon Nyatawa

Kristen Nichols smiles in a photo with an American flag in the background

Word was getting around that Creighton students were being invited to eat free pizza and find out more about a scholarship opportunity in the Air Force. This immediately caught Kristen Nichols’ attention in 2002.

Then, it changed her life.

Today, Nichols, BS’01, DDS’05, is an Air Force colonel, serving as the commander of the 59th Dental Group and stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. She couldn’t imagine her career unfolding any differently, even though she hadn’t considered joining the military until that day at Creighton.

The 59th is the Department of Defense’s largest dental service — Nichols oversees more than 400 medical personnel. She’s responsible for ensuring her base effectively and compassionately serves the more than 129,000 patients it treats per year.

Nichols is building relationships with other medical professionals across the base’s 59th Medical Wing and interacting with a diverse group of dentists whose specialties and talents span the medical spectrum.

Quite often, she’s reminded of the experiences and lessons learned along the way that set her up for success. That includes her time at Creighton, where Nichols took advantage of opportunities and developed skills that would benefit her in the future.

Nichols developed as a leader while participating in several campus organizations, such as Creighton Students Union and Pre-Dental Society. She studied hard. She built strong bonds with professors and advisors, several of whom had military backgrounds with Offutt Air Force Base located just across town.

She said Creighton’s School of Dentistry prepared her for just about every possible situation a dentist could encounter — she’d later learn, as an Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) instructor, that the extensive firsthand experience Creighton provides to dental students wasn’t always common across institutions nationally.

“Even starting out in undergrad at Creighton, there were so many different opportunities for leadership that pushed me to excel and get accepted into dental school,” Nichols says. It was that foundation that led to her selection for an Air Force Dental School scholarship. 

Then she took off. Literally.

Kristen Nichols sits and listens at an event

Nichols went to Texas, then Colorado, then California, then Washington, D.C., then back to Texas, then to Dover, Delaware, then back to D.C. again. She’s had 10 different assignments in her nearly 20 years. She’s earned a Master of Science and a Master of Business Administration in Health Administration and passed her board examination to gain certification in prosthodontics. She married her husband, Clay, in 2010.

Her leadership responsibilities developed over time. But those roles always seem to come naturally for Nichols. Now she’s stepped into her biggest job yet. She’s eager to see where it takes her.

“I’ve had great leaders and great mentors, and my schooling background has given me the opportunity to thrive,” Nichols says. “I just kind of jumped in with two feet and have enjoyed it.”

It sure is a good thing Nichols heard people talking about the Air Force informational session that day, so many years ago, on Creighton’s campus. And thank goodness they had pizza!

But given Nichols’ never-ending curiosity and ambition to seek new growth opportunities and expand her goals, she likely would have found her way there one way or another.

“What a great choice it was. I'm so happy for it,” Nichols says. “I go back through my 20 years in the Air Force and think about all the service opportunities I’ve had and the outstanding people that I have been able to lead and work with. It’s been an honor to experience it, all while serving my country.”