Nurse, Teacher, Trailblazer
Randolph Rasch, PhD, FNP, RN, is passionate about nursing. And he’s also passionate about teaching.
“When you practice as a nurse, you provide care as an individual. If you teach, you are helping multiply the number of nurses who are able to provide care. Your efforts are multiplied and you help shape the future of clinical practice. That’s very rewarding,” says Rasch, who is a professor and the director of the family nurse practitioner program at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville, Tennessee.
Rasch’s love of both nursing and teaching are spotlighted in the current “Nursing
Education…Pass It On” promotional campaign put together by Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow (www.nursesource.org), a coalition of 43 national nursing and health care organizations working together to address the nursing shortage. The campaign is designed to encourage nurses and students to consider teaching careers in hopes of slowing the country’s growing shortage of nursing faculty.
While Rasch is new to his role as celebrity spokesman, he has long considered it part of his job to look for and recruit future nursing professors–and his efforts aren’t limited to just the university students in his classes. Before accepting his current position at Vanderbilt, he was a faculty member at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he was involved in offering continuing education programs for nurses across the state.
“I made a point to always tell those nurses where I went to school and all of the different roles I had enjoyed as a nurse,” he says. “I was very honest. I said, ‘I am telling you this because I know that some of you are interested in doing different things as nurses and I want you to see the type of things you could do.’”
Rasch would always stay after these education programs to meet one-on-one with
RNs who were interested in career advice. He gave out his contact information freely. Hearing from some of these nurses years later, after they’ve made the transition to a new career specialty, is still one of his biggest rewards.
A History of Firsts
Rasch is featured in two print advertisements developed by JWT Specialized Communications for the “Nursing Education…Pass It On” nurse educator recruitment campaign. He is shown standing in front of a classroom full of students, smiling. His words urge others to join him in training future nurses. “By sharing my story of nursing firsts, I am able to demonstrate how individuals from a variety of backgrounds can succeed,” the ad quotes him as saying.
Rasch does indeed have a long history of firsts. He was the first African-American man to graduate from the nursing program at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He then became the first African-American male public health nurse (PHN) in his native state of Michigan. He followed that by becoming the first male African American to complete an MSN as a family nurse practitioner (at Vanderbilt in 1979). Finally, he became the first African-American man to earn a PhD in nursing when he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1988.
But Rasch insists he didn’t enter nursing with the goal of being a trailblazer. Instead, he just wanted to provide good patient care.
“I was always interested in health care,” he emphasizes. “I really didn’t know what was involved in nursing, so I originally thought about going to medical school. As I learned more, it was clear that nursing was the right choice for me.”
It was nursing’s holistic approach that appealed to Rasch. “Nursing focuses more on the whole person,” he explains. “You can get to know people and help them improve. You do need to know about diseases and treatment, but you also need to learn who this individual is. You have to know about their lives and families so you can plan care that is appropriate for that person.”
Encouraging Future Faculty
Rasch’s approach to encouraging the next generation of nurses to consider careers as professors is very simple. He does it through one-on-one conversations with students. After all, that was how he himself was recruited into teaching.
“When I first became a nurse, I only saw myself working in a clinical setting,” Rasch recalls. “When I graduated from my undergraduate program, I went to work in a hospital. The director of my program said for me to go ahead and do that, but she thought I would grow to become interested in other things.
“She was right,” he continues. “I did enjoy working in the hospital, but I wanted to do other things. So I went to work as a public health nurse in Benton Harbor, Michigan, went back to school for my MSN and became a family nurse practitioner. Then I wanted to learn how to identify problems and solve them, so I entered a PhD program.”
It was while he was pursuing his doctoral degree that the idea of teaching came up. “Almost all of my classmates were nursing professors,” he says. “Along with the faculty, they talked me into [becoming a professor].”
Rasch believes an encouraging word from a trusted faculty member is often all it takes to cause a nursing student to consider teaching. “Most of the people that I talk to haven’t thought about becoming a teacher,” he notes. “When my professors said they could see me teaching, that was enough reason for me to consider it. It’s very encouraging for someone to say to you, ‘we’ve been watching you and we see what you can do. Let’s talk about this.’”
Rasch is careful never to become too pushy in his efforts to recruit future faculty. “No one ever told me to become a professor, but they did ask me to think about it. That’s what I do with my students now.”
When nurses become professors, he adds, they make a lifelong commitment to learning as well as teaching. That begins with the basics of research. “I never saw myself as a researcher with a big ‘R,’ but it is an integral part of my work.”
Rasch’s research expertise is in HIV/AIDS and men’s health issues. He believes that the ability to read, understand and apply research is becoming more important to all nurses. Future nurses need that interpretive skill, he feels.
“Nowadays, anybody who watches the evening news is constantly hearing about new developments in health care,” Rasch says. “Patients will come in and say, ‘I saw this on the news.’ As a nurse, you need to be able to look into it, find and read some of the most current research and then get a sense of whether a change [in the patient’s treatment] should be made.”
Not Always an Easy Journey
Rasch’s long list of barrier-breaking firsts means, of course, that he was often the only male African American in the class or on the job. Yet he says he didn’t experience the loneliness that some men of color feel in nursing. He credits his outgoing personality with helping him avoid isolation. However, he did experience discrimination, although it wasn’t always intentional.
“Some things happened where I realized that my teachers or fellow nurses were discriminating, but [it was usually because] they didn’t stop to think,” he explains. “Sometimes they would almost try to protect a patient from having a male nurse without realizing that it wasn’t an issue with the patient.”
Rasch hopes that by featuring an African-American male professor in the campaign, the “Nursing…Pass It On” advertisements will draw nurses from a variety of backgrounds into the field of teaching.
“I think it’s important to have a very diverse faculty,” he stresses. “We each have our own cultural experience. If you just have people with the same experiences, you narrow the perspective. You get people that look at everything the exact same way and there’s no growth. With a diverse group, you can look at things more creatively and come up with a wider range of possibilities and solutions.”
This trailblazing teacher knows the journey from nurse to professor isn’t easy. He offers several pieces of expert advice for minority nurses interested in making the transition from practicing nurse to nursing educator.
“The first thing to do is look at what graduate programs are accessible,” he says. “Look at where the program is located and how it is offered.” Once you’ve narrowed your choices down to two or three programs, get information on the faculty–specifically, find out about their nursing expertise and their teaching philosophies.
Rasch also recommends putting together a portfolio of nursing accomplishments. This will help you document your successes, something that may be needed to impress graduate school admissions officers. “Remember that students and faculty both add something to the learning process,” he points out. “Show the admissions officers what you can contribute as a student.”
Finally, don’t think it’s too late to consider teaching. Rasch himself worked as a nurse for several years before going back to school to pursue an MSN. “If you’ve been out of school for a while, highlight the things you have done in your career” is his advice for nontraditional students.