‘Embracing The Challenge’ UMass Wins $1 Million Grant For Programs To Promote Diversity In Nursing

Jean Swinney says a number of studies have shown that hospital patients and others receiving medical care feel more comfortable when the individual administering that care looks like they do and has an appreciation for their cultural beliefs and feelings.


This is just one of many reasons why it is important to promote diversity in the nursing profession, said Swinney, an associate professor of Nursing at UMass/ Amherst who is heading a project de-signed to help achieve that goal.

The initiative is called ‘Embracing the Challenge,’ and it is being undertaken through a $957,755 Nursing Workforce Diversity Grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Swinney, the only African American on the School of Nursing faculty, said the project is one of many being undertaken nationally to help ensure an adequate supply of nurses for the future. But it has another, equally important mission: helping to create a nursing workforce that mirrors the population it serves.

Nationally, African Americans (12{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}) and Hispanics (13{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}) represent nearly a quarter of the total population, said Swinney. But only a much smaller percentage of the nursing population (perhaps 7{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}) is from those ethnic groups.

The ‘Embracing the Challenge’ project is designed to improve those numbers by establishing programs that will encourage members of those and other minority groups to enter the nursing profession and then support them as they work their way through the often-challenging process.

“How you are advised and how you are supported, in my view, is critical to how successful you will be,” said Swinney, recalling that she was told early on in life that college may not be best for her. “When we’re talking about people getting into professions like nursing, often it’s not about ability, but rather it’s about support and guidance of these young people.”

The program’s stated goal is to increase the percentage of minority nursing students enrolling at local community colleges and UMass by 20{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} within three years, while also increasing the percentage of disadvantaged minority juniors and seniors at the university’s School of Nursing from 15{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} to 25{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the school’s total enrollment.

The Healthcare News looks this month at how Swinney and UMass will work to achieve that mission.

Numbers Game

Swinney said there are a number of reasons for the current lack of diversity in nursing. For starters, she said, many in minority communities do not consider nursing when contemplating career options. Meanwhile, for those who do, there are a number of challenges standing between them and their goal, including academic and financial burdens and, often, a lack of role models.

The ongoing nationwide nursing shortage has created a number of programs designed to address these issues, she said, adding that the ‘Embracing the Challenge’ project will go a step further, and focus specifically on minority groups.

And it will convey its message to people of all ages, starting with middle school students, said Swinney, who told The Healthcare News that it is important to make nursing a viable career alternative for all young people — and also those already in the workforce — and then build and maintain a support system.

To achieve this end, ‘Embracing the Challenge’ will employ a number of vehicles, including mentoring and tutoring programs in math and science, nursing clubs for middle school students, and social and information sessions for high schoolers.

“We have to go back to the high schools and middle schools and plant the seeds,” she explained, adding that the program will focus on three area school systems — Springfield, Holyoke, and Amherst — chosen for their diverse populations.

The nursing clubs, as they are called, would be created to generate interest in the profession and provide a support network of sorts for those who choose that path, said Swinney.

“These clubs will be orienting students so they know about nursing and what a rewarding career it is,” she said. “We also want to guide them through the process, so we’ll have funds for tutoring. If they don’t need the support, fine, but if they need a little help with math, for instance, we can arrange that.”

Swinney said she also plans to work with minority students from the School of Nursing at UMass to partner with prospective nursing students in middle and high schools.

An annual two-day celebration of nursing on campus will give students interested in nursing a chance to visit UMass and develop a network of faculty and student contacts. “When they go home, those students will know someone at UMass who understands their dreams.”

Mentors and role models are important for all young people, but especially those in minority populations, said Swinney, noting that many come from families where college — and a career as a health care professional — are considered non-traditional paths.

“If you have kids who do not have parents who have gone to college, they are not as savvy about how you get that support through school and into college,” she explained. “Nor may they be able to get the support at the school because they come from more-humble backgrounds.”

For this reason, the program is committed to creating opportunities for students who cannot afford college or may not have a 3.0 grade point average. The program will provide need-based stipends that will require students to maintain at least a 2.5 average, and it will also support training for some students to become certified nursing assistants.

Swinney told The Healthcare News that while ‘Embracing the Dream’ will work to create greater diversity in the nursing profession, it will also change the look and feel of the university’s School of Nursing.

To break down stereotypes and promote a deeper appreciation for cultural and ethnic differences, the HHS grant will support a series of workshops aimed at enhancing multicultural communication and support skills for faculty, staff, and students at the school, said Swinney. “We’re dedicated to changing the climate within the school so that everyone’s background is celebrated.

“We need to achieve a critical mass,” she continued. “We can’t admit one African-American or Hispanic student and say that addresses the problem. We need to have enough students so that the school is seen as a welcoming and supportive place.”

School of Thought

Swinney told The Healthcare News that if ‘Embracing the Dream’ succeeds as planned, it should only take a few years for the region’s health care providers — and its nursing schools — to achieve greater diversity.

And when nursing staffs look more like the populations they serve, she said, everyone wins.

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