WMU Project Seeks More Diversity In Nursing

Feb 9, 2018

WMU nursing students practice their technique
Credit J. Gabriel Ware / WMUK

Most of the people who work in health care in Michigan are white. But a new project at Western Michigan University’s Bronson School of Nursing is trying to draw more minority students into the field.

Students in Western Michigan University’s Bronson School of Nursing often practice on mannequin "patients." They learn how to inject medications, hang IV bags, and other tasks they’ll need to know once they enter the workforce. One of these students is Yessica Garcia, the oldest of four children of Mexican immigrants who migrated to the U.S. nearly 20 years ago. She says the language barrier got in the way of her family receiving adequate healthcare once they arrived. She had to translate for her parents and nurses when she was only five, hearing things that were probably inappropriate for someone that young. Garcia says her family eventually avoided healthcare altogether.

“When you go to a place, and you see no one that can help you, you get frustrated. They get frustrated. You make no progress. You make no improvements and you just stay away.”

Those unpleasant experiences inspired Garcia to become a nurse. She’s now in the Empowering Nursing Students for Success Project, a new $2-million program launched by Western Michigan University’s Bronson School of Nursing. Nursing professor Mary Ann Stark led the research and grant writing for the project. She says it aims to recruit, retain, and train nursing students from underserved and under-represented groups. Empowering Nursing Students for Success is an expansion of a pilot program launched a couple years ago. Stark says it was so successful that the nursing school got a new federal grant to expand the program.

Because students enter the nursing school as sophomores, Stark says the program recruits students who are already attending WMU.

“Western has already done an amazing job recruiting diverse students. Their numbers are better than what we see in the State of Michigan. Now it’s our job to get the students that are here well-prepared and thinking of nursing as a career.”

Greater diversity needed

Stark says greater diversity is needed because race and ethnicity are factors in many illnesses. For example, the Alzheimer’s Association says Latinos and African-Americans are more likely to get that disease than whites are.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Michigan Annual Nurse Survey Project, about 20-percent of people in Michigan are black and Latino. But less than 8-percent of the state’s nurses are. Compare that to the 75-percent of the population that’s white but makes up 83-percent of nurses. Denise Neely is the vice-president and chief nursing officer at Bronson Methodist Hospital. She says the project at Western is important.

WMU nursing student Yessica Garcia with a practice "patient"
Credit J. Gabriel Ware / WMUK

"We have a diverse population that we take care of, and so I think it’s very important that we reflect that in our employees. The grant should really do a lot for our area to help us support those diverse populations and support people getting into nursing careers.”

Because funding for the new project is much larger than the pilot program, Western’s Nursing School now offers students scholarships and stipends. Stark says that helps them overcome financial barriers since many are the first in their families to go to college.

Students in Empowering Nursing Students for Success are referred to as scholars and are paired with a peer- navigator. That’s an upper-class nursing student who serves as a tutor and resource. They are also paired with a faculty mentor who provides additional academic support. Faculty members also help students get professional experience.

Bronson Hospital offers job opportunities to nursing students who’ve completed their first year of nursing school. Neely says students in the Empowering Nursing Students for Success Project would benefit from these opportunities.

Laura Mason is a bedside nurse and instructor at the University of Michigan. She also supports the project: “The more diversity of thought you can have, the diversity of representation you can have, the better ideas that can emerge out of an organization. I think this $2-million grant to WMU's School of Nursing is wonderful and I think they’ll be able to do amazing things with it. I’ll like to see more grants like that spread out to other institutions across the state.”

Criticism of the program

But the program has also received some criticism. All the professors in the nursing school are white. Adriana Perez, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, says even though the project is a step in the right direction, having a diverse group of professors is also important to students’ success.

“Many faculty that have been in the role for many years are used to doing things a certain way, so they aren’t prepared to meet the needs of diverse students. Diverse students have different learning needs; different needs period.”

Perez’s research focuses on cardiovascular and cognitive disparities in Latinos. She’s also a diversity consultant for the Campaign for the Future of Nursing, a national initiative launched to improve the experiences of nurses in healthcare. She says the lack of diversity in the faculty also poses a psychological challenge for students.

“When you don’t see yourself in those positions, it’s hard to imagine or it’s hard to realize your full potential.”

The lack of diversity in mentors also stands out to Garcia, the nursing student who was inspired to become a nurse after having bad family experiences in healthcare.

“I don’t know any other Latina that can kind of guide me through it. I don’t know anybody that’s a nurse, that’s even in healthcare. Navigating yourself through college is hard enough, and now taking it a step further into nursing.”

Even so, Garcia says the Empowering Nursing Students for Success Project has helped prepare her for the workforce. It helped her get professional experience and she's confident that she’ll find a nursing job after graduation. Professor Mary Ann Stark says Western’s nursing school is working to increase the diversity of its faculty.

“That would bring a whole additional flavor. I try to bring diversity into the classroom by the questions I ask and the things that I do. But I think someone who’s from a different background than what I am would probably come up with a lot more creative ideas and ask some better questions than what I do.”

Life after graduation

But what about life after graduation? Students may still face challenges once they enter the work force. University of Michigan nursing instructor Laura Mason is a member of a union, the Michigan Nurses Association, and says joining a union can help. Adriana Perez, at the University of Pennsylvania, says students like Garcia also would benefit from joining professional organizations like the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. Perez says these organizations connect nurses and students to mentoring, leadership, and career advancement opportunities.

“We still need to work on that transition from education to practice and even beyond practice to making sure that Latinas and other under-represented groups go into higher education, become scientists, become faculty members, become leaders in their organizations.”

WMU nursing student Yessica Garcia agrees and says the Empowering Nursing Students for Success is helping her get into a position where she can someday inspire other Latinas to pursue nursing. “If I’m there and I can show them that it’s possible and I can provide the resources and provide them with the connections, they would see that it is possible.”

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