Nursing School Diversity Directors: What Do They Do and What Difference Are They Making?

Diversity directors appear to be a small but dedicated niche among nursing schools that are making an effort to better include and serve people of varying racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. While campus-wide diversity and multicultural affairs offices are fairly common at major U.S. universities, it’s rarer for nursing schools—or other individual colleges and professional schools, for that matter—to have a diversity department of their own.

“There have been pockets, but it hasn’t been done consistently, and there hasn’t been a big vision [for it in nursing education as a whole],” says Mary Lou de Leon Siantz, PhD, RN, FAAN, assistant dean for diversity and cultural affairs at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia.

There’s at least one reason, however, why the idea of establishing an office dedicated to enhancing the recruitment, retention and teaching of a diverse population may soon catch on at more nursing schools. “Now more than ever, because of the changing demographics of the United States, [a greater focus on multiculturalism in nursing education and practice] is very badly needed,” notes Siantz, who is a past president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses.

By having their own formalized diversity departments and appointing diversity directors, nursing schools are in a position not only to create a more inclusive profession but also to prepare future nurses to meet the health care needs of an increasingly multicultural patient population. But what exactly do diversity directors do? And is this an emerging career opportunity that more minority nurses should consider pursuing?

The Mission and the Vision

One of the first tasks that Lillian Stokes, PhD, RN, FAAN, took on when she took the helm of the Office of Diversity and Enrichment at Indiana University School of Nursing in Indianapolis was to help fashion a diversity mission statement. Today, she sees that message displayed on a bronze plaque each time she walks through the front entrance of the school.

“Our overall vision is to try to promote an environment that values respect and reflects a global view of diversity,” says Stokes, who is also an associate professor at Indiana and the national president of Chi Eta Phi, a sorority for minority nurses.


Clarifying the vision of a diversity department usually starts with determining what diversity means. “We define diversity here as ‘holding multiple perspectives without judgment,’” says G. Rumay Alexander, EdD, RN, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and associate clinical professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Nursing.

Nursing school diversity directors say they want to expand the definition of diversity beyond the familiar parameters of race, ethnicity and gender. “One of the things I always talk to our first-year students about is the need to think about diversity in broader terms, not just [in terms of] ethnicity,” says Jana Lauderdale, PhD, RN, assistant dean for cultural diversity at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville. “That’s something I kind of preach all the way through the program.”

The term can apply to any subculture or underrepresented group, she explains–for example, homeless persons, people with disabilities or people with chronic illnesses.
In Alexander’s view, achieving diversity means more than simply admitting more students from diverse backgrounds. These students need to find a supportive environment that will help them succeed.

“If you’re inviting people into an environment that for whatever reasons does not feel welcoming to them, or treats some [members] of its community in an inequitable way, then you may be bringing in many people through the door, and your numbers may be going up in terms of admissions,” she says. “But if these students are not successful in matriculating through the program and graduating, then it’s kind of like coming in the front door of a house and going out the back door.”

At Penn, Siantz says a key element of the school’s vision is that the commitment to diversity must be top-down. “That means that at the top there is recognition of the need to diversify the administration and the faculty, as well as the student body, to better promote the mission of the school,” she explains. “Diversity is the number one strategic goal of the School of Nursing. Globalization is the second.”

The Scope of the Job

A common thread in the job descriptions of nursing school diversity directors is a major focus on assisting students. Some are also involved in faculty programs and curriculum development.

G. Rumay Alexander, EdD, RNUNC-Chapel HillG. Rumay Alexander, EdD, RN UNC-Chapel Hill

At Indiana University School of Nursing, Stokes’ Office of Diversity and Enrichment is part of the Center for Academic Affairs. The enrichment part of her job title is broad in scope.

“This position calls for working with all students, not just minority students or underrepresented students,” she says. “Although the faculty and my office are committed to supporting underrepresented students as much as possible, I probably see just as many or more majority students.”

Diversity-related programs at Indiana’s nursing school include “empowerment sessions” to aid students with test taking, stress management, time management, organization and other skills; peer-led tutorial reviews of specific classroom subjects; a Diversity Forum series featuring presentations by faculty members and local and national leaders; and workshops for faculty on teaching students from diverse cultures.
Recruitment of minority and international students is another aspect of Stokes’ job, although she says it’s not her primary role. “We have a marketing and recruitment person [who is in charge of that],” she explains. “I work very closely with that office, and also with our graduate offices.”

Stokes and some of the senior nurse researchers on the faculty have established a program called Connections that targets students who might be good candidates for the PhD program in nursing. “We meet with students—it may be one student or ten—who express an interest or who I see have potential,” she says. “We take them through the admissions process [and] get them to start thinking about their research area, so we can think about a faculty member who might work with them.”

Two students–one African American and one Nigerian–who participated in Connections have since begun their doctoral studies in the School of Nursing. “They are doing very well,” Stokes reports.

She is also a founding member of the nursing school’s Minority Advisory Council, now called the Diversity and Enrichment Council. The group includes faculty, students, staff and community partners, such as practicing nurses, politicians and leaders of local organizations.

Lauderdale, who is president-elect of the Transcultural Nursing Society, says the range of her job at Vanderbilt “seems to be a moving target. Almost every day, there seems to be another layer added to it, which tells you something about the scope of the need for a position of this type.”

Lauderdale’s initial focus was on ensuring a “cultural diversity content thread” throughout the curriculum, “so that by the time students graduate, they feel comfortable working with patients from different cultures and are able to provide culturally competent care.”

Today, in its expanded role, the cultural diversity office at the School of Nursing offers an Academic Enrichment Program in which a group of students meet about once a month for brown bag lunch discussions on a wide range of topics–from critical thinking skills and time management to working with culturally diverse patients. Lauderdale also coordinates a Pre-Nursing Society for freshmen and sophomores who are considering nursing as a career.

For faculty, the nursing school’s summer institute on teaching strategies includes discussions of how to celebrate cultural diversity in the classroom. In addition, Lauderdale works closely with the faculty member who directs the cultural diversity program in the School of Medicine.

Diversity Is a Full-Time Job

When Alexander came aboard at UNC, she turned what had previously been a part-time role into a full-time focus. “Prior to my [being hired], the issues relating to diversity and inclusion were part of an assignment [given to] someone else on the faculty,” she explains. For her predecessors, this function took up a relatively small percentage of their responsibilities.

Lillian Stokes, PhD, RN, FAANIndiana UniversityLillian Stokes, PhD, RN, FAAN Indiana University

“I came into the interview with a clear understanding, because of [my] past work experience in diversity, that if it wasn’t getting the full attention of someone and it was kind of the job of ‘everybody,’ it was not going to get the traction that it needed to get,” Alexander says.

Specific diversity enhancement strategies at her school include a continuing education requirement for faculty and staff that is linked to their performance evaluations and compensation; the Kindred Spirits Award for Excellence in Multicultural Scholarship, given each year at commencement to a student who exemplifies respect for diversity; and an Ethnic Minority Visiting Scholars Program.

All of these elements, Alexander says, make her days on the job “unpredictable and lots of fun.”

At Penn, Siantz works closely with the nursing school’s Master’s Curriculum Committee and Diversity Committee. She also partners with other groups within the school and throughout the campus that are interested in promoting diversity.

For example, Siantz has partnered with the university’s medical school to develop a Leadership Education and Policy Development program to promote leadership skills among nurses and physicians of color. Supported by the university vice provost’s Office for Diversity, this program also teaches them how to use their research and clinical practice to help shape public health policies to eliminate disparities.

Another key strategy for Siantz has been to become a faculty member of minority nursing student organizations on campus, holding leadership retreats with the groups’ outgoing and incoming boards.

Challenges and Rewards

All of the nursing school diversity directors interviewed for this article admit that the work they do has its share of challenges. Yet they also find it extremely rewarding, especially when they see that their efforts to promote diversity and inclusiveness are producing measurable results and making a real difference at their institutions.

Siantz says one of the biggest challenges in diversifying the nursing profession is that nursing schools need to extend their outreach beyond the college campus.

“We need to partner with the [elementary and secondary] school systems, because despite the fact that the numbers [of people of color] are growing, they’re not going to college,” she emphasizes. “That’s something that the schools in individual communities need to wrestle with in terms of how they’re going to change that picture over time.”

Stokes sums up the main barrier multicultural students face in advancing their nursing studies with one word: “Money.” For example, she says, “I’ve been in communication [recently] with a young lady who graduated from another university here in [Indianapolis]. She has attended several of [our] Connections programs, but right now it’s [the lack of] money that’s keeping her away [from pursuing doctoral studies here].”

On the plus side, the school has been successful in obtaining a National Institutes of Health grant that provides some scholarships and stipends for qualified nursing students. About 36 nursing students at Indiana have participated in the university-wide Summer Research Opportunities Program, and several have gone on to pursue graduate studies. “I think we have had more students in the program than any other unit [of the university],” Stokes comments.

Another success story for Stokes has been seeing the nursing school’s learning environment change for the better when it comes to faculty interaction with students from diverse backgrounds. “They just have a better understanding of students who are different from them,” she says.

At UNC, one of Alexander’s proudest accomplishments has been to have the School of Nursing become a national role model for promoting and achieving diversity.
“We are called on frequently to consult with other schools about how to walk the talk of inclusion,” she says.

Is This a Career for You?

Because nursing school diversity directors represent a newly emerging specialty, there is little data available about their current employment statistics, salary levels or the career outlook for the field. However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the mean annual wage for all education administrators in colleges, universities and professional schools was $86,480 in 2006.

What kind of background and experience would be prerequisites for this career? The BLS notes that top student affairs positions usually require an EdD or PhD, along with good interpersonal, leadership and decision-making skills.

The directors interviewed for this article all have credentials that fit that profile. Alexander has an MSN from Vanderbilt University, training as a family nurse practitioner and an EdD in educational administration and supervision from Tennessee State University. She also has work experience in both hospital and corporate settings. Just prior to arriving at UNC, she was the head of her own diversity consulting business in Nashville.

Lauderdale has an MSN with a major in maternal-child health from Texas Women’s University and a PhD in transcultural nursing from the University of Utah.

Stokes has an MSN from Indiana University School of Nursing and a PhD in instructional psychology with a minor in gerontology from Indiana University-Bloomington. She says her instructional psychology background, with its focus on teaching behaviors, is an asset in her current job.

Siantz has a master’s in child psychiatric nursing and community mental health from UCLA and a PhD in human development from the University of Maryland. Before accepting her position at the University of Pennsylvania, she was an associate dean and director of the Center for Excellence in Hispanic Health at Georgetown University.

Siantz believes the successful nursing school diversity director will be someone who is a visionary leader with excellent communication skills and strong relationship-building skills. “The person who is recruited to this position must be a senior-level person who not only walks the talk but also understands, and has a vision for, how to pull it forward,” she says.