Project awarded $957,000 federal grant to promote diversity in nursing

By Daniel J. Fitzgibbons

With Massachusetts and much of the nation facing a growing shortage of registered nurses over the next 15 years, the School of Nursing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is launching a three-year, federally-funded effort to recruit more minority and disadvantaged students to the field.

Funded with a $957,755 Nursing Workforce Diversity Grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the “Embracing the Challenge” project is being led by associate professor Jean E. Swinney.

According to Swinney, the project is aimed at supporting students interested in nursing at area middle and high schools to UMass Amherst and nursing programs at Greenfield, Holyoke and Springfield Technical community colleges.

Through support activities such as mentoring and tutoring programs in math and science, nursing clubs for middle school students, and social and information sessions for high schoolers, Swinney hopes to promote an interest in nursing opportunities. “We need to be in the schools to be competitive,” she says, “and we want to be competitive.”

Swinney also plans to work with minority students from the School of Nursing to partner with prospective students in middle and high schools. An annual two-day celebration of nursing on campus will give students interested in nursing a chance to visit UMass and develop a network of faculty and student contacts. “When they go home, those students will know someone at UMass who understands their dreams.”

“This grant complements the commitment of the dean and faculty of the School of Nursing to support academic and professional opportunities for individuals of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds,” she says.

As the only person of color on the School of Nursing faculty, Swinney says she is particularly sensitive to the issues facing African-American, Latina, Asian-American and Native American (ALANA) students. Their input helped guide the direction of the project, Swinney says.

To help break down stereotypes and promote a deeper appreciation for cultural and ethnic differences, says Swinney, part of the HHS grant will support a series of workshops aimed at enhancing multicultural communication and support skills for faculty, staff and students in the School of Nursing. “We’re dedicated to changing the climate within the school so that everyone’s background is celebrated,” she says.

Swinney says “Embracing the Challenge” is also committed to creating opportunities for students who cannot afford college or may not have a 3.0 grade point average. The program will provide need-based stipends that require the students to maintain at least a 2.5 average. The program will also support training for some students to become certified nursing assistants, Swinney adds, “so they can work with dignity and self-respect and still pursue their dream.”

By the end of three years, says Swinney, the goal is to increase the percentage of minority nursing students enrolling at the local community colleges and UMass by 20 percent while ratcheting up the percentage of disadvantaged minority juniors and seniors in the School of Nursing from 15 percent to 25 percent of the school’s total enrollment.

“We need to achieve a critical mass,” says Swinney. “We can’t admit one African-American or Hispanic student and say that addresses the problem. We need to have enough students so that the school is seen as a welcoming and supportive place.”