How to Build a More Diverse and Inclusive Nursing Workforce

May 9, 2016, 9:32 AM, Posted by Lucia Alfano

A nurse leader shares how she overcame significant barriers to pursue a successful career and what we can do to help minorities in nursing succeed.

I became a nurse by accident at a time in my life when I had no direction. My family had moved from Ecuador to Queens, New York when I was a child.

As a teen, there were times when I lived in group homes or even the streets and I felt completely lost. I dropped out of junior high.

When an acquaintance suggested in passing that I enroll in the nursing program at Queensborough Community College, I followed her advice without realizing that nursing would become my calling. I had to overcome obstacles that included lack of family support, finances and even basic academic skills.

I wanted so badly to be educated, that I persevered through these struggles. I found that I loved everything that had to do with nursing—from what we learned in class, to what we learned in the clinic, to volunteer work in the community.

I believe there are many young people who, like me, would thrive in nursing. But because of their background or existing challenges, they may believe that a career in nursing is not an option. In particular, young students may think that they cannot afford nursing school.  

Identifying these kids and helping them succeed could create a nursing workforce that better reflects the growing diversity of our nation. Hispanics, for example currently make up 17 percent of the population but only 7 percent of the nursing workforce.

Here are approaches that I’ve seen work for recruiting and graduating minority nurses and empowering those already in the field.

Reach out to kids at a young age so they understand that a career in nursing is a real option for them

As part of my work with the Westchester chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN), I visit junior high and high schools in South Yonkers with a large population of Hispanic and African American students to talk about careers in nursing. I let them know the job market for nurses is strong and that the profession is so multifaceted that there is a place for everyone in nursing. I share my personal story because it impacts the students to hear from someone who is Hispanic and grew up in poverty similar to them. It helps them see that they too can go to college and pursue a career in nursing.

We offer resources and support, including scholarship funds. Since Hispanics are so family-oriented, we’ve learned that it helps to invite the entire family—not just the students—to our outreach events. Parents need to hear that nursing school can be affordable for their child if they seek financial aid and scholarships.

Encourage minority nursing students to take advantage of academic support programs

As a nursing student, I had to take extensive remedial courses through my school’s tutoring center and re-learn the basics of math, English and writing. Now, as a nurse educator at Concordia College, I see that my Hispanic nursing students don’t have the same academic foundation as their white counterparts and because of that, they lack confidence.

We need to urge minority nursing students—especially if English is their second language—to take advantage of tutoring and peer-to-peer mentoring programs. Students often feel too shy or embarrassed to use these resources. But this additional academic support can help them succeed in school and graduate.

Recruit more minority faculty members to nursing programs

I realized early on that I was destined to be a nurse educator because I love teaching and sharing my passion for nursing. Many of my minority nurse colleagues don’t choose faculty careers. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), just 14 percent of full-time nursing school faculty members came from racial or ethnic minority groups in 2014.

One of the main reasons minority nurses pursue clinical careers over faculty careers is because clinical positions offer higher salaries. But minority nurses should consider teaching for several reasons. It’s incredibly gratifying to impact not only the student in front of you, but all the patients they will care for and the colleagues they will teach in the future. You can bring much-needed perspective to classroom discussions about cultural competence. You serve as a role model for minority students, and you show students that their culture is an asset, rather than an impediment, to their work as a nurse. In addition, nursing faculty are encouraged to partake in clinical, consultant or scholarly writing endeavors to help  supplement their salaries.

Empower minority nurses to get involved with community outreach

During my career, I’ve been fortunate to help countless Hispanic patients because I could explain their diabetes medication to them in Spanish or I could understand why they weren’t eating the hospital food and ask their family to bring in familiar foods from home. All of this was very natural and intuitive, but over time I realized that being Hispanic helped me recognize the needs of not just the individual patient, but of the larger community.

For example, in Westchester County, where I live, there are an estimated 45,000 undocumented Hispanic residents. This is a vulnerable group that is in need of outreach and support. I’ve seen undocumented patients with pregnancy-related complications that could have been prevented. But they didn’t seek prenatal care because they feared being deported. Now I’m trying to help undocumented people in the community understand that they can access preventive care without being deported.

I want Hispanic and other minority nurses to know that they are uniquely positioned to respond to the pressing needs and the disparities in their communities and nationally. You can improve care for people struggling with poverty, linguistic barriers and a lack of health literacy.

Your voices need to be part of the conversation about creating new solutions for our most vulnerable populations.   

What other approaches to increasing diversity in nursing work? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Lucia Alfano, RN, MA, is a member of the nursing faculty at Concordia College in Bronxville, New York, a practicing public health nurse, and a recipient of the 2015 Culture of Health: Breakthrough Leaders in Nursing award.