Nurse Leader Opens Doors of Opportunity to Second-Career Nurses

Vernell DeWitty manages RWJF-funded program that provides financial support to accelerated-degree nursing students from underrepresented backgrounds.

    • October 28, 2011

Problem: Second-career nurses expand the nursing workforce, increase diversity in the profession and build the pipeline of nursing school faculty—all of which will help curb the looming nursing shortage and improve the quality of care. But second-career nursing students are not eligible for many of the forms of financial support that are available to more traditional students, which may discourage some from entering the field.

Background: Vernell DeWitty broke through race barriers decades ago when she became one of a small handful of BSN-prepared African American nurses in her hometown in Louisiana. Now she’s helping other underrepresented groups in nursing—minorities, men and others from disadvantaged backgrounds—join her beloved profession.

When DeWitty, PhD, MBA, MSN, was a young girl in the 1960s, professional options for women were limited. Most of the women in her family had become school teachers, so DeWitty—an iconoclast by nature—decided to pursue the only other professional path open to her at the time: nursing. Despite some challenges, it is a decision that she has never regretted.

DeWitty enrolled in the school of nursing at Dillard University in New Orleans and then joined the nursing staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. She was a rarity for two reasons: She held a bachelor’s degree in nursing, an exceptional degree for nurses at the time, and she was an African American in a field that was, and continues to be, dominated by Whites. Despite her stellar credentials and strong work ethic, she experienced discrimination at work. Patients questioned her, colleagues challenged her, and superiors turned her down for promotions.

“I was African American, I was young, I was new, I had a BSN degree, and it was the crest of the civil rights movement,” she says. “Some experiences were demeaning.”

Despite the challenges, DeWitty forged ahead. She moved to Washington, D.C., where she earned a master’s degree in nursing, and focused on maternal and pediatric health. After her discharge from the Army Nurse Corps, she accepted a position at what was then Freedmen’s Hospital (now called Howard University Hospital). She rose through the ranks there and became a nurse administrator.

But she grew increasingly frustrated with the financial constraints associated with trying to improve care at hospitals. “I said, ‘You know what? I need to understand the language of finance better,” she recalls. “I wanted to be able to sit at the budget table with the hospital administrators and the physicians. It’s all about being able to compete for resources. That translates into providing better patient care.”

DeWitty mastered that language at Howard University, where she earned an MBA, and took those skills back to the health care field. She served on the staffs of the Center for American Nurses, where she was director of program developments; the George Washington University Hospital, where she was administrative director of the Women’s Heart Center; the Hospital for Sick Children, where she was director of program and business development; and the Association for Women’s Health, where she was associate director for consultation and marketing. In 2007, she earned her doctorate in nursing at George Mason University.

Solution: The following year, DeWitty became deputy director of New Careers in Nursing (NCIN), a program supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and headquartered at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The program provides $10,000 scholarships to students from underrepresented groups who attend select nursing schools that offer accelerated degree programs.

NCIN targets accelerated-degree students because it is often a huge challenge for them to find scholarships or funding. Accelerated degree students have already earned an academic degree and are therefore not eligible to apply to certain loan programs. But they often need financial help.

They are older and more mature than traditional students, they are able to complete their education in a relatively short period of time and they are often highly motivated and highly focused students. They are also often managing other financial responsibilities, including parenthood, which can make school financing especially difficult.

“Accelerated degree students come with a different level of maturity compared to students coming out of high school,” DeWitty says. “They have a high probability of success” and that, she notes, is reflected in their high scores on nursing licensure exams.

Accelerated degree students also have high expectations and aspirations, DeWitty adds. The overwhelming majority plan to earn an advanced degree, and many express a desire to become nurse educators and nurse leaders. Building the pipeline of advanced-degree nurses will help curb a shortage of nurse faculty, a key way to solve the overall nurse shortage problem. And more nurse leaders will ensure that nurses have a voice in the redesign of the health care system. “They really have a lot of clarity about what they want to do in nursing,” DeWitty says.

In order to receive funding, participating schools must recruit and enroll students who are members of underrepresented groups and they must offer programs in leadership development, mentoring and ensuring academic success. Schools must reapply each year to receive funding.

The program has had a clear and positive impact, DeWitty says.

Over the last four years, it has awarded some $23 million in scholarships to 1,906 students from a wide range of backgrounds. Of those who have received NCIN scholarships, 38 percent are men; 27 percent are African Americans; 11 percent are Hispanics; and 11 percent are Asian-American. The balance of scholarships has gone to people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The program is also influencing the nurse education system. Participating schools are opening up NCIN leadership development and mentoring programs to all nursing students. And recruiters have a better understanding of the value of a diverse student body and nursing workforce.

For DeWitty, the position is a “good fit” because it allows her to use the skills she has built over the course of her career and share her experiences as a minority in the field.

“Times are very different,” she says. “I don’t perceive the same kind of discrimination that once existed, but I do know that in some places it’s still there. I think that I can help others better understand and have a different perspective of looking at potential applicants coming into nursing program. As a minority myself, I can ask some questions that other people may not think about asking.”

RWJF Perspective: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As part of this mission, the Foundation supports the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, a collaborative effort to implement solutions to the challenges facing the nursing profession. Supporting accelerated-degree nursing students from underrepresented backgrounds is a key way to expand the nursing workforce, increase diversity in the field, and build the pipeline of nurse faculty. That, in turn, will help curb a looming shortage of nurses and improve the quality of nursing care.

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