Last spring, Francis Herrera, a junior nursing student at the University of Pennsylvania, was mulling over his career options: He could get a job as a clinical nurse after graduating, he could go to school part-time and earn his master’s degree while working, or he could apply to a doctoral program and become a nurse educator.
Now, after completing an intensive health research internship for students who have been traditionally under-represented in health-related graduate programs, his goals are clear: He’s heading into academia. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he plans to earn both his master’s and doctorate degrees in nursing so he can continue researching nursing care for elderly patients with dementia.
The clarity came after Herrera completed the internship program at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, last summer. “The experience changed my life,” he says. “It sent me on a path toward graduate school.”
Herrera, a Latino from the Bronx who is the first in his family to attend college, is a shining example of the program’s potential to diversify health-related graduate school programs. Called Project L/EARN, the program offers internships to up to 10 students every summer who have an interest in health research and who are minorities, first-generation college attendees or who are from low-income families.
In the past, nursing students and faculty had been virtually absent from Project L/EARN.
But since 2008, when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) began supporting the program, Project L/EARN has made a concerted effort to recruit more nursing students into the program. The directors of the program have reached out to nursing faculty, deans of nursing schools and leaders in the nursing community; spoken at nursing conferences; and have held information sessions for prospective students at nursing schools.
The effort has paid off.
Last year, three of the nine Project L/EARN interns were nursing students, and this year another nursing student will participate in the program. Applications from nursing students have also jumped over the past two years.
Prior to 2009, only three nursing students had participated in the program since it was founded in 1991.
Project L/EARN Faculty Director Jane Miller, Ph.D., is thrilled that more nursing students are participating. “The nursing students absolutely fit in Project L/EARN,” she says. “They benefit from the same kind of training that we provide students from other health-related fields such as psychology or public health. The nursing students conduct interesting, relevant research projects and contribute valuable clinical perspectives to class discussions with interns from those other majors.”
More Diverse Nursing School Faculty Will Improve Health for All, Officials Say
Training nursing students from historically underrepresented backgrounds in research supports the Foundation’s goal to improve health and health care for all Americans.
Nursing students who are trained in research methods will be better prepared to move into academia, where they can educate the next generation of nurses and contribute to the body of evidence-based research about the practice of nursing. “Nurse faculty members have to conduct research in order to have faculty research positions,” Miller says.
The program also helps enhance the diversity of the nursing profession, particularly by broadening the backgrounds and perspectives it brings to bear on health problems. A more diverse body of nurse educators may inspire more men and minorities to become nurse researchers and faculty, says Project L/EARN Program Director Diane Davis, B.A. And that, she adds, will help the profession as a whole provide better care to patients from a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Founded nearly two decades ago, Project L/EARN has helped dozens of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds prepare for and enroll in graduate school and become successful professionals.
Interns receive free tuition, room and board during the 10-week program as well as a $3,900 stipend so they can—as the program’s name suggests—“learn while they earn.” Participants also receive three academic credits when they complete the program.
During the program, participants are matched with individual faculty mentors to complete a research project, which they present as a seminar at the end of the summer. They also take classes, hone career plans, participate in networking opportunities with a community of scholars, and attend a professional research conference.
“In nursing, we don’t always encourage students to go directly on for their doctorate degrees, since the focus is on clinical practice,” says Judith A. Lucas, Ed.D., A.P.N., an assistant research professor at Rutgers who mentored Herrera last summer. “Project L/EARN encourages nursing students to integrate evidenced-based research and clinical practice in their professional education and to think about developing clinical and research expertise through graduate education.”