Cramming a four-year nursing degree into a 15-month academic program was tough for Blake Smith, a former high school soccer coach who recently switched professional gears and enrolled in an accelerated-degree nursing program near his hometown in Fremont, Neb.
Smith rose to the challenge, thanks in part to a scholarship from New Careers in Nursing (NCIN), a joint project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. In 2012, he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in nursing from Nebraska Methodist College. Now, on top of his new job as a registered nurse, he is working to make it easier for others to succeed in accelerated-degree programs and become second-career nurses.
To do that, Smith helped create a network for scholars and alumni of the NCIN program that offers members networking and mentoring opportunities and other kinds of support during and after nursing school. “I wish I had somebody outside of a teacher or professor to communicate with … to pick me up when I was down,” Smith says.
The newly launched NCIN Scholars Network, he believes, will meet that need.
The benefits of the network don’t stop with students; helping nurses succeed in school and in the workplace, and enabling second-career nurses to bring their previous skills to bear in their new profession, will strengthen and diversify the nursing workforce, the health care system, and ultimately the patients it serves, according to NCIN Program Assistant Jihanne Jeanty, BA.
Onome Osokpo, ABSN, MS, RN, a former analytical chemist who completed an accelerated nursing degree program at Stony Brook University in New York in 2012, and an alumnus of the NCIN program, agrees. “You have people from diverse backgrounds coming together to see how to impact the health care industry in a significant way,” he says. “How do we harness these diverse backgrounds, skills, and credentials to positively impact the health care population that we serve? ...That’s the primary mission of the Scholars Network.”
For his part, Smith hopes that the network will eventually become a place where nurses can speak in a unified voice about issues affecting the nursing workforce and the health care system. “There are approximately 3 million nurses registered in the United States,” Smith says. “Our ultimate goal is to make one voice out of those 3 million people to make sure the patient is getting [heard].”
Smith came up with the idea for the network during an NCIN-sponsored seminar on leadership development at which he and other students were encouraged to communicate with each other and to take on leadership roles in nursing. “I had one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments,” Smith recalls. “You complete your education and go out into the nursing field without a resource to communicate with other future leaders. I decided that someone needed to step up and bring the nursing field into the 21st century with social media resources.”
He broached the subject of a formal network with his supervisor at Nebraska Methodist College, who connected him to NCIN program leaders in his state and in Washington, D.C. The response was enthusiastic; NCIN helped create a steering committee for the network, comprised of 12 scholars and alumni, including Smith and Osokpo.
The members met last October at the fifth annual NCIN summit in Washington, D.C., where they drafted a mission statement, a vision for the future, and priority goals, which are (a) improving communication among scholars and schools of nursing; (b) building awareness of the network; and (c) supporting scholars in leveraging previous skills and credentials in their nursing careers.
Steering committee members are now working to build the network’s infrastructure and raise awareness among NCIN’s scholars and alumni. To do that, the steering committee launched a website and spread the word about the network via email, newsletter stories, and online posts.
The group is now planning a series of regional summits for NCIN scholars and alumni featuring guest speakers and steering committee members. The first is tentatively slated for September in Omaha, the site of three major nursing schools that have NCIN scholarship programs. “We can bring quite a few people to a summit and test it out, and see what works and what doesn’t work,” Smith said. “We’d like to take what we learn from the first summit and then start replicating that” in other places.
Steering committee members will regroup in Washington, D.C., this fall at the sixth annual NCIN summit, where they will plan their next steps, Jeanty said. “We helped them with what they want to do, but it’s up to them to grow it.”
One such step is to encourage NCIN scholars and alumni to partner with Action Coalitions—state-level groups of nurses and nurse champions who are working across the country to transform the nursing profession to improve health and health care. Action Coalitions are the driving force behind the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, a national effort backed by RWJF and AARP to transform health care through nursing by mobilizing coalitions with nurses, other health care providers, consumers, educators, businesses and others.
These scholars “are going to be the future of nursing,” Jeanty said. “They’re young, they have a voice, and they can make those goals happen.”