Washing dishes. It’s the proverbial first step on that storied journey from anonymity to achievement in America, and so it was for Elias Provencio-Vasquez, who recently became the first Latino to head a nursing school in the United States.
Provencio-Vasquez, 54, got his start in the health care industry as a teenager some four decades ago when he took a job organizing food trays at a hospital kitchen in Phoenix. The one-time dishwasher was recently tapped to become the new dean of the nursing school at the University of Texas in El Paso. He now works just across the river from Ciudad Juarez, the border city in Mexico where his parents lived before he was born.
In the intervening years, he has practically done it all in nursing. He has served as a clinical nurse, a nurse researcher, a nurse educator and a school administrator, and he has added lots of initials to his name along the way: R.N., M.S., Ph.D., F.A.A.N., and F.A.A.N.P. He has also been certified as a pediatric and neonatal nurse practitioner.
Provencio-Vasquez is internationally renowned for his pioneering work in neonatal and pediatric care and in women’s health. And he holds fellowship status at a number of institutions, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), where he is currently an Executive Nurse Fellow.
He attributes his stunning—and unusual—rise in the field of nursing to the many nurses who helped him along the way.
Ever since his first job in the hospital kitchen in Phoenix, Provencio-Vasquez has been inspired by the work of nurses, he says. As a young man, the nurses he met befriended him and taught him about their work, unwittingly steering him into the field. He soon applied for and got a job as a unit clerk in an emergency room at a nearby hospital, and then decided to commit to the profession by earning an associate’s nursing degree.
After graduating, he returned to work in the same emergency room where he had served as a unit clerk. He then went on to earn his bachelor’s degree and, after more than a dozen years in clinical practice, his doctorate. In 1992, he became the first Latino in the country to earn a Ph.D. in nursing.
For his dissertation thesis, Provencio-Vasquez tracked premature babies and their families after they were discharged from the hospital and created an intervention for nurses to help parents of premature infants transition from hospitals to their homes.
Before becoming dean at the University of Texas at El Paso, he served as associate dean at the University of Miami and as director for the Neonatal Nurse Practitioner program at the University of Texas at Houston and the University of Maryland.
During this period, he shifted his research focus from infants to their mothers. He sought to better understand how to reduce the maternal risk of substance abuse, HIV exposure and intimate partner violence during and after pregnancy.
To do that, he oversaw a study that involved more than 500 home visits to at-risk women who were taught parenting and health skills. “The mothers really responded well to that,” Provencio-Vasquez says. “They just needed to be reminded that they were powerful and great mothers.”
Throughout his Career, Male Role Models were Few and Far Between
Throughout his career, most of Provencio-Vasquez’ mentors and role models have been women. But he also encountered a few male role models along the way.
“I became a nurse in early 1980s, when there were very few men in nursing,” he says. “But those few were really great role models. They were very supportive.”
Although the numbers of men in nursing still remain low, the field has become more diverse since Provencio-Vasquez put on his first set of scrubs. In 1980, there were only 45,060 male nurses, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. As of 2004, there were 168,181—an increase of more than 273 percent. Today, men comprise 6.6 percent of the nation’s nursing workforce, up from 5.4 percent in 2004.
The picture looks only slightly more balanced at the nation’s nursing schools, where men comprise 11 percent of the student body in baccalaureate nursing programs and 9 percent of the student body in master’s degree programs. The percentages of men in doctoral nursing programs are smaller.
Now one of 28 male deans at U.S. schools with baccalaureate and/or undergraduate programs, Provencio-Vasquez recognizes that he is a role model for aspiring nurses who are men and who are racial or ethnic minorities.
“I never thought that having faculty or people that look like you would make a difference, but it does,” he says. “If you see faculty who you can identify with, that does make a difference.”
That is why Provencio-Vasquez serves as a National Advisory Committee member for New Careers in Nursing (NCIN), a program supported by RWJF that provides scholarships to students from groups that are underrepresented in nursing or who are from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the first year of the program, 36 percent of the scholarship recipients were male and in the second year, 38 percent were male.
A more diverse nursing workforce will help ensure that all patients—regardless of their backgrounds—get high quality care. Recruiting more men to the field will also help alleviate a projected shortage of nurses that threatens to undermine patient care.
“Only by engaging and developing more leaders from underrepresented groups in nursing will we be able to sustain this initiative,” says NCIN Program Deputy Director Vernell DeWitty, Ph.D., R.N. “As more diverse persons, such as Dr. Provencio-Vasquez, move into positions of leadership, we will be able to advance this goal.”
(Photo credit: JR Hernandez, The University of Texas at El Paso)