My Own Story: Encouraging a Diverse, Well-Educated Nursing Workforce

May 6, 2012, 1:00 PM, Posted by

Happy National Nurses Week! Today is National Nurses Day, and the beginning of a week during which we celebrate the contributions of this profession. The week fittingly ends with Florence Nightingale's birthday on Saturday, May 12. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has a proud history of supporting nurses and nurse leadership, so this week, the RWJF Human Capital Blog will feature posts by nurses, including leaders from some of the Foundation’s nursing programs. Check back each day to see what they have to say. This post is by Susan B. Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, RWJF Senior Adviser for Nursing and Director, Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action.


Earlier this month I had the privilege of traveling to Montana to help some of the state’s health care leaders launch the Montana Cooperative to Advance Health Through Nursing. This new state-based Action Coalition is working to advance recommendations from the Institute of Medicine report, The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.

While I was there, I met with Native American nursing students and their mentors at Montana State University. They are part of the extraordinarily impressive “Caring for Our Own: A Reservation/University Partnership,” known as the CO-OP program. These students come from desperately underserved areas and, after they graduate, they will go back to their reservations to provide culturally-sensitive, urgently needed care.

At the Action Coalition gala, the recipient of the student award told her story, moving many of us to tears. When she was 17, she tried to commit suicide. It was a nurse who saved her life, and convinced her there were things to live for and gifts she had yet to share. She told the audience that the nurse had been her role model through hard times. It had taken her many years and she had overcome many more hardships, she explained, but she will soon graduate and give back in the same way that her role model had given to her.

She and her peers are the kind of strong, dedicated, caring professionals that nursing needs, our health system needs, and patients need. I came home invigorated and encouraged by all the Montanans I had met, and the promise of progress in this state.

Today is National Nurses Day, which begins the celebration of National Nurses Week. We are a diverse profession, serving patients in more ways, more roles and more settings than Florence Nightingale—whose birthday, May 12, concludes National Nurses Week—could have ever imagined.

I am proud to be a nurse, proud of my colleagues working to help patients all over the country, and proud that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has a long history of supporting nurses in many roles, from research to practice to leadership and more.

RWJF recently announced the launch of the Academic Progression in Nursing (APIN) initiative, which will help state Action Coalitions in their work to advance the recommendation in the Future of Nursing report that 80 percent of the nursing workforce be prepared at the baccalaureate level by 2020.

I am an associate’s degree nurse. I started my nursing education at a community college, and at that time, I’m not sure I could even have imagined getting to where I am today.

When I graduated, I felt ready to complete all the many tasks and procedures required of a nurse on a very busy medical unit, but I felt there was more that I needed to know. The clincher for me was when I transferred to a coronary care unit and simply felt that if I had more to do with prevention and health education, half of my patients would not have shown up on my unit in the first place. Going back to school would give me the extra information I needed to help my patients even more.

When I went back to school for my baccalaureate degree, I realized there were connections I wasn’t making that go beyond simply doing tasks. I learned about community health and care coordination, the continuum of care and payment systems—all of which helped me do more for my patients. I learned leadership and research skills, and the evidence-based practices that improve the quality of the care I provide. In essence, my BSN helped me to feel much more confident and competent in delivering patient care. Just what I needed!

I went on to get two masters’ degrees and started my career as a nurse faculty member. Teaching the next generation of nurses, and encouraging them to continue their education, had deep meaning for me. Teaching nurses how to provide the best possible care is a responsibility to our profession, and to our patients.

Today, I have my PhD and I am affecting policies and helping other nurses become leaders. I love my work and feel lucky to be able to do it. I want all nurses to have opportunities to advance their education, for themselves and for their patients.

Whether they live in bustling cities or on reservations, all Americans deserve access to high-quality, patient-centered care. We can’t provide that without a well-educated and diverse nursing workforce that contributes as essential partners in our health care system.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.