Autoethnography of an African American Nursing Student: Reflecting on a Four-Year Baccalaureate Nursing Program
In this essay, I present my firsthand account of my experience as an African American nursing student in a predominantly nonminority nursing program as well as my perceptions and interactions with fellow students. As an autoethnographer, I sought to answer the following question: What is the African American student nurse’s experience of education in a predominantly nonminority school of nursing and university, and how does that experience affect her as an individual?
Pre-Nursing School: Being “White”
In high school, I was called “white” by the majority of the few African American students in a high school of nearly 500 students in the Northeast. Initially, when they said this to me I was shocked. I had been on the receiving end of racially charged comments by white peers, and now I had to deal with this from my own race and ethnicity, too? I wondered why I could not catch a break. I remained confused but focused on my schoolwork. Since being a freshman, I was in honors classes, those with the maximum rigor in the entire school. It was viewed as if only the elite were in these classes, but I surely did not feel like the elite. My white peers in those classes assumed I came from the ghetto and asked me to teach them Ebonics and about rap music (which I did not listen to). I was isolated in those classes because of such stereotypical comments and the competition to be number one of the entire graduating class, but mainly because I was the only African American student in such classes. The comments from my African American peers only intensified as I was enrolled in both cosmetology in vocational school and Advanced Placement courses (which could alleviate me from taking college courses, once enrolled).
One of my African American acquaintances, who I thought seemed amicable, approached me purposefully one day in the hall. She looked like she was on a mission to find me as I put my things in my locker. I met her with a kind hello—I did not have many friends in school. I blamed myself for that, being so quiet. She stated loudly with a greeting, “Do you think you are better than us?” I said, totally confused, “Us? Better than who?” She quipped, “You know exactly who I mean, the few blacks in this school.” My face must have looked blank. I just stared at her with curiosity due to the fact that, besides the “white” comments, there was never an extended conversation or association besides my distant friendship with several other minorities. She continued to badger me, “You know you think you are better than us since you are in those special classes. Who do you think you are?” I simply responded, “Nothing.” At the time, my self-esteem was low; I had become tired of my lack of association. She was not buying it. “You know what? It must be true that you are white because you even talk like them,” she said. “Don’t ever think you are better than us. We are just as smart, although we may not be in the AP classes.” Taken aback, I explained, “I never said you weren’t. You should talk to your advisor about enrolling in one of the classes.” Without acknowledging my reply, she stormed away, saying, “Wow, you are white.” As she walked away, I blinked at her and said to the dust trailing behind her, “It is funny because my skin is black like yours.” I went on to finish my day; however, the episode never stopped playing in my head, even after I became a nursing student.
Katie Love, PhD, APRN, BC, AHN-C, wrote about the lived experience of African American nursing students in a predominantly white university in a 2010 article published in the Journal of Transcultural Nursing. One of the themes of her phenomenological study was that of fitting in and “talking white.” She reports about a study participant who had grown up in a predominantly white secondary school and had become accustomed to experiences with white students. African American nursing students who did not have such an experience described some African American students as being “Oreos…Black on the outside and white on the inside.” Such “Oreos” are described as African American students who are black but “act White, socialize, and talk like White people.” One of the participants of the study shared the following observation: “To me it’s kinda a funny thing that it’s such a problem in the Black community that you could not talk in a certain way…but if you start talking slang, then to them you’re trying.”
I could identify with Love’s study as my isolation from peers—from within my own race and from without—began in high school. In high school, I was excluded by white students because of the color of my skin and, at the same time, excluded by my African American peers because of the way I carried myself and spoke. In nursing school, my isolation continued. It would eventually lead to my depression.
Nursing School: Feeling Isolated and Excluded
Fast forward to nursing school. The faculty and advisors began our edification with a talk about the rigor of the courses. I remember a gentleman announcing, “Look around the room. See everyone here? Not all of you will be here in four years. The truth is, nearly half of you may not make it to graduation.” I remember sitting in the warm amphitheater and feeling intimidated by his words. When I looked around, as instructed, I noticed the class was made up of only three African Americans. The largest minority group were of Hispanic background.
The first few semesters were full of straight science courses, which translated into nonstop studying. I spent my days in the library enjoying my books and learning. The days went so fast, when all I did was read and study the day away. In the blink of an eye, the end of the first year arrived. All of the Hispanic students were eliminated either by not meeting academic requirements or by choosing to leave the program. I was afraid that I would be next. My classmates were mostly white students. At times, I felt I did not belong. None of my professors looked like me. The nonminority students studied together and did not invite me, much less speak to me.
I remember our professor addressing the class during our sophomore year. She advised everyone in our small section to avoid driving alone to a distant clinical site and to carpool instead. I looked around the room attempting to make eye contact but did not receive any response. My nonminority peers turned around in their seats and, within minutes, had arranged themselves into two car groups, which left me out. I told myself, “You really thought it would be different, huh?” I laughed to myself and stopped looking for a group. That experience solidified the divide for me.
In 2004, Nancey France, PhD, RN, and her colleagues at Murray State University published a pilot study in Visions: The Journal of Rogerian Nursing Science that examined the lived experiences of black nursing students and found many reported feeling isolated and discounted. One of the themes of the data was “You’re just shoved to the corner.” One African American student nurse clarified, “You may get one or two that wants to include you…You may go up to them, you’ll risk to say ‘are you going to study?’ If you think that you know them and everything’s o.k., you’ll say, ‘are you all going to have a study group this weekend?’ And they’ll say ‘yeh’. But, when the time comes…you can’t get in.” Another student reported, “I’m the only black, in all my classes I’ve been the only black. It’s hard because…you got to prove yourself. If you don’t do as well as the other students they just single you out. That’s why I have to strive to do the best I can.”
Black students also reported feeling they were only admitted to schools of nursing to meet a quota. They described the increased pressure exerted on them when minority attrition rates were high in their class. As a result, they experienced emotions such as self-doubt, fear, lack of confidence, and diminished self-esteem before attending class. Many students reported these feelings pushed them “even harder to prove they could be successful.” There seemed to be a consensus that there was an unspoken expectation of African American students to fail, which propelled these students to greater levels of determination to prove that “they were as smart as anyone else.”
Moving Up: The Benefits of Exclusion
During my third semester in nursing school, I became tired of sitting in the back of the classroom. What had once seemed comfortable became an annoyance to me. The students who supposedly knew all the answers sat in the front, always the first ones to raise their hands. However, their answers were the same as mine—always. They weren’t any better than I was. I decided to beat the caste system within my own classroom. I felt my sitting in the back row was perhaps contributing to my isolation and depression that had begun to develop. Humans are not meant to be excluded—we need contact. As a result, I started moving forward, slowly but purposefully, to avoid and overcome my feelings of exclusion.
I remember deciding I would not allow myself to sit in the back anymore. I felt like Rosa Parks as I migrated up to the middle rows of the classroom. I began to raise my hand more. I found that studying alone was beneficial to me, as I knew the full answers to questions that other students merely answered in a general way. As a result, I started raising my hand and answered insightfully each time.
I wasn’t sure of myself until my anatomy and physiology professor approached me and asked if I wanted to become a physician. He tried to convince me to enter the premedical program. I was flattered and taken aback, but I knew it was not what I wanted. I had fallen in love with the few nursing courses we were allowed to take. I could not betray my passion for nursing and really “being” with the people. However, he had not approached anyone else in the class with this offer.
It was after that discussion that I moved up and became the snob who raised her hand to answer every question, at every opportunity. It was not until then that I had my first contact with nonminority students, other than a glance. They soon began asking how well I did on my exams. When interrogated, I replied without emotion, saying I did “okay” when I knew I got an A. They soon lost interest in me again. They did not know that their exclusion of me in their study groups was paying off greatly for me. I had become an independent and successful learner.
As the years progressed, I think they began to suspect I was doing better than just “okay” as I began to earn scholarships and recognition from my professors in class. It was unwanted attention for me because I wanted to keep my head low. What began as a business venture to simply gain a skill that would sustain me as an adult turned into a love for the profession of nursing. I had not expected that—it just happened. As my love grew, I began to excel. As I excelled, I felt the isolation increase. I had become used to it; it didn’t really bother me on the surface. It seemed other students were in school to make lifelong friends and to have a good time. I was in nursing school solely to earn my degree, focusing intently and singularly on my studies; so, most nursing students tended to avoid most nursing students avoided me.
I soon began to wonder if I had isolated myself, but then I noticed in my junior year that professors began to assign more group assignments. In those voluntary group assignments, I observed minority students chose to work together in the same groups, while nonminority students chose to work together in their own groups. I wondered if the professors noticed the same thing I did. It went on like this until the end of the nursing program.
A 2015 integrative review published in Nursing Education Perspectives reaffirmed that there are several studies where African American nursing students reported feeling “voiceless, not part of the important conversations, left outside of the cliques, alienated and insignificant.” Many minority students coped with these conditions by forming their own network among other minorities and “sticking together.” Additionally, Love noted in her study that African American students familiar with “being left out” from high school experience were better able to accept exclusion and move beyond the experience.
All that studying and exclusion seemed to work better for me. It worked out because I graduated. During graduation, I knew a select few would earn special acknowledgement for their achievements. I was sure it would not be me. I was so focused on getting out of there. I had the chance to extern on a unit in a teaching hospital where nonminority staff embraced me as if I was family. I just wanted out of nursing school. At the end of four years, it felt like prison only being able to talk to and connect with six minorities who made it to the end of the program. Now, I was free to explore the world as an adult with a real job—not just a student building up debt.
These were my thoughts as I was called up to shake hands with all of my professors. I was so focused on receiving my degree that the moment when they called my name seemed only a second. When they began to announce the special recognition awards for academic and clinical excellence, I kept looking back at my family and realized I was one of the few students wearing a purple tassel, which meant we were part of a special group: the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau. We had high GPAs.
Then I heard one of my professors say my name. I looked around and those around me whispered, “That’s you! Get up! They called you!” I had earned the award for clinical excellence. I was speechless and nearly stumbled up to the stage. I thought my professors were not interested in me, but they had nominated me for this award (and I assume they voted that I receive it). I was flabbergasted but filled with pride because I—the quiet African American student nurse—had earned this great honor. I thought I had not deserved it, because there were so many things I did not yet know, and I knew I was not the perfect student. I critiqued myself for those few senseless Bs I had earned. It was not until I returned to my seat the second time that I realized maybe I did deserve this award. Just maybe, I had worked hard enough in that I enjoyed putting the entire patient picture together—staying in their rooms, discussing how they felt about their illnesses while taking it all in, and figuring out how I could use my knowledge to prevent one less complication. I was more than a student nurse in those moments with my patients; I assumed the role of nurse and took such opportunities with the utmost seriousness. I remember a great exhalation as everyone threw their caps to the roof of the auditorium. I was deserving.
Soon after graduation, I passed my licensing exam on the first try and began working on a medical-surgical floor at a teaching hospital. My work was challenging and kept my attention, but I soon began to crave schooling. I decided to enroll in an online program. The main reason for doing so was so no one could see my face and perhaps I could fit in for once. And I did. I felt since no one could see the color of my skin or the youth of my face there would be no divisions. It proved true. I enjoyed my online schooling and soon pursued a doctorate program online after completing my master’s in nursing education.
In a 1998 study published in the Journal of Nursing Education, author Mary Lee Kirkland, EdD, RN, concluded that the most successful coping strategies of female African American nursing students are active coping and social support. She explains that “although they may have faced times of discouragement or despair, they did not waver in their pursuit of their goals. They relied on their inner strength to take the action needed to conquer their stressors and move on successfully.” I had a support system of my spirituality, my family at home, and my friends of the same faith that kept me strong. They probably were unaware how they were the one thread that held me together through emotional turmoil and numbness.
Enlightenment Upon a Return to the University: Six Years Postgraduation
Aside from the anatomy and physiology professor, who was from the biology school, I was never sure how the true nursing faculty viewed me. It was not until I returned six years later as a clinical nurse specialist to become a mentor for nursing students like I had been—of the minority. I was also pursuing a scholarship for my doctoral education with a focus on nursing education.
When I met with one of the professors, I was sure she had forgotten me by the e-mail she had sent back when I asked for a letter of reference and to meet to discuss a mentorship program for minority nursing students. However, when I walked in the door in my professional attire, she told me, “Wow, I remember you. I wasn’t completely sure in your e-mail, but now I know who you are exactly…You were always so bright. I knew it then, and look at you now and all you have accomplished. You have your master’s and are a clinical nurse specialist….[Another professor] and I are rooting for you to get this scholarship.” Our conversation ran long before a student showed up for her advisement. The professor told me warmly, “Keep in touch. We are so proud of what you will become and have become already!” She had written my letter of recommendation. However, the recognition she provided in those moments proved to me I did not know myself those years as well as I did right then.
I had not been invisible, after all, and the award I received upon graduation was not for show, but because my professors saw such great potential in me. I had become visible to myself and the world. My confidence soared as I left the campus. I had driven in, but I seemed to fly home, alongside the clouds.