Beyond a Buzzword
At UIC Nursing, diversity is a reality that students are immersed in every day In fall 2022, for the first time ever, more than half of the college’s students were racial or ethnic minorities.
Infusing the nursing workforce Heading link
But Smith says it’s not enough to just bring students into the program. They also need to feel like they’re in a safe space. She wants students to know: “We support you; we want you to do your best; and we want you to excel while you’re here.”
The program’s signature series is the Seminars for Excellence in Nursing Sciences Program, which helps prepare incoming Urban Health Program students for the rigors of nursing coursework. A peer-mentoring program launched in 2021 focuses on the psychological and emotional well-being of students, featuring sessions on topics like coping with microaggressions and adversity.
The Chicago campus also opened the Center for Academic Excellence and Cultural Engagement in spring 2022—a brick-and-mortar space intended to promote academic success and build a sense of inclusion and respect for diversity among all students, not only those from minority backgrounds. [See p. 5 for more on the new center.]
Infusing the nursing workforce
When a student graduates from UIC Nursing’s bachelor’s, master’s or DNP program, the college asks if they intend to work with a largely rural or medically underserved population. In 2021-22, about 37% of respondents said yes.
Jessica Dudley, DNP ’20, MS ’17, RN, is one of those graduates. She loves Chicago and says she never wants to leave. She’s from the working-class neighborhood of South Chicago on the Southeast side of the city, one of six children raised by a single mom.
“I’m very grateful to [my mom] because she gave me so many unique experiences, like sleepovers at the Field Museum,” Dudley says. “I never felt like the poor little girl from the South Side.”
Although Dudley’s family lived below the poverty line, she spent her childhood playing outside, biking, going to the park and museums. She always had food, clothes and supplies for school. Her experiences were far from the stereotypical images of the South Side depicted in media, but she still noticed qualities about her neighborhood that she questioned.
“I’m not [criticizing] my neighborhood,” she says. “I love where I came from. But we had candy stores on every corner in my neighborhood. There was a liquor store down the block from my church. I didn’t understand why my neighborhood had so many liquor stores, especially with the number of folks you would see who were alcohol dependent.”
Dudley connected some of these neighborhood qualities to the general health of her community. As a student in UIC’s Advanced Generalist Master of Science/graduate-entry program, Dudley was able to name what she had observed: social determinants of health.
Dudley is now determined to effect change and improve health outcomes—speciﬁcally birth outcomes among people of color. She is currently a labor and delivery nurse at UI Health. As she’s progressed through her UIC Nursing education—from the master’s program, to a DNP in advanced population health, and currently to a post-DNP certiﬁcate in midwifery—one goal has remained constant: “I knew for sure I wanted to advocate for and work with people like the ones I grew up with in Chicago,” she says.
Holistic admissions = holistic nurses
The trend toward increasingly diverse classes at UIC Nursing stems in part from a change to holistic admissions in 2014. Then, the college began incorporating an applicant’s experiences and attributes into admission decisions, in addition to using traditional academic metrics.
Concerns about potential negative outcomes—such as declining graduation or NCLEX pass rates—were unfounded, according to a 2018 study of the program. College leaders believe strongly that admitting students with a diversity of backgrounds means all UIC Nursing students become better equipped for patients they will encounter in practice.
“One of the goals behind increasing student diversity is to expose all students to different views and perspectives,” says Dean Eileen Collins. “We want students, in partnership with faculty, to be in dialogue and to share lived experiences that might help each other connect with their patients. Regardless of their background, all students beneﬁt from a diverse student body and can bring what they learn into their practice.”
Increasing student diversity also serves to “infuse the health professions workforce with practitioners that can serve their community,” says Smith.
The nursing profession remains predominantly female and white. The National Nursing Workforce Study in 2020 found about 19% of RN respondents self-reported as minority, while about 42% of Americans are non-white, as of 2020.
Nurses who can speak a patient’s native language—if it’s not English—can be critical to ensuring patients get appropriate care and continue to seek it. Medina says she noticed this among her community in Humboldt Park.
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” she says. “A lot of patients don’t go to the doctor because they fear they won’t be understood. [They wonder:] ‘Why can’t I have someone I can speak to?’ It makes the visit unfair and less meaningful.”
In her commencement speech, Medina imagined a different reality for her community and others like it.
“Now imagine looking into your patient’s eyes and saying, ‘It’s ok. Yo hablo Español. I speak Spanish.’ Think about the happiness that they will feel. Diversity in health care ﬁelds is essential. UIC will be sending out future nurses that are diverse and well-rounded.”