The Power of Partnerships

It all started with a conversation that took place in 1999 between the deans of two highly respected schools of nursing–one of them an Ivy League school, the other a historically black university. These two academic leaders shared a common, passionate goal: to introduce undergraduate nursing students from underrepresented minority populations to careers in advanced practice nursing and research. Today, their germ of an idea has blossomed into a highly successful collaboration that has been praised by the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR) for its leadership role in addressing racial and ethnic health disparities and has been recognized by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a national model for nursing school health disparities partnership programs around the country.

Catherine Gilliss, RN, DNSc, FAAN, dean of Yale University School of Nursing in New Haven, Conn., and Dorothy Powell, RN, EdD, FAAN, associate dean of Howard University’s Division of Nursing in Washington, D.C., wanted to change the face of nursing research by encouraging talented minority students at the baccalaureate level to develop an interest in research, go on to graduate school and pursue doctoral degrees. The most effective way to accomplish this, the deans agreed, would be to immerse the students in research to help them understand the process. Empowered by that understanding, they reasoned, the students would gain confidence in themselves and in their ability to make a difference by becoming nurse scientists.

So it was that the Yale-Howard Scholars Program was born. Each year, the program brings a small, select group of Howard BSN students to the Yale campus to receive mentorship, training and research opportunities. The project’s original design involved an intensive six-week summer internship in which each Howard scholar was matched with a mentor from Yale–a nursing faculty member conducting funded research–with whom they would work closely.

In the summer of 2000, the first group of nurse scholars traveled to Yale for their internship. Five students from Howard University were chosen to participate. During that inaugural year, Yale covered all of the students’ expenses.

“That first summer,” Powell recalls, “we had to convince the students that this was a good thing to do. We chose good students who were considering graduate school and had an interest in learning about research.”

The students stayed at Yale in campus housing facilities, attended seminars, performed some community service and worked on projects with their mentors. Within the context of the larger research project, the Howard scholars had to identify a research question that they could look at more closely, then use the data from the parent project and transform it into a research problem involving minority health disparities. The students were responsible for studying the data, analyzing it and presenting their results.

“An Incredible Experience”

Nicole Laing, RN, BSN, was one of the first Howard University scholars to attend the internship program at Yale. Her research project focused on type 2 diabetes in minority women.

“I originally wanted a clinical experience but was offered the opportunity to learn about research at Yale, so I went. I thought it would be a good experience and would prepare me for graduate school,” she says. “It was an incredible experience. I enjoyed my mentor’s approach. I was introduced to the research project and encouraged to just dive in. I appreciated being able to run with it.”


Laing graduated from the BSN program at Howard in spring 2001 and is now a graduate student at Yale, studying to become a Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. “I love it!” she reports. “I’m having a good time and learning a lot. For minority nurses especially, the impact we can make on health care is so great. It’s worth the time and effort required to complete a graduate school education.

“Attending the Yale-Howard internship program definitely fueled my desire to go to graduate school and to attend Yale,” Laing adds. “The internship experience developed me both as a nurse and as a professional. It helped me prove to myself that I could do it, that I could attend an Ivy League school. Sure, it was challenging. But like anything else, I just had to make the commitment and do it.”


Making an Impression

At the end of their six-week internship, the inaugural group of Yale-Howard scholars presented their research at a symposium held at Yale. They had created PowerPoint presentations in which they demonstrated the application of statistics and their understanding of the research vocabulary to explain their findings. They fielded questions from doctorally prepared nurses in the audience. Everyone was very impressed at how well the scholars were able to articulate their research, says Powell. “Clearly, there was a transformation in these students,” she declares.

“Presenting my project was a challenge,” Laing remembers, “and it was wonderful! I actually understood the process and felt confident about what the numbers meant.”

But the research experience for the minority students didn’t stop when the six weeks were over and they returned to their own campus. To continue the process, the scholars were assigned Howard University mentors to work with them throughout their senior year. These faculty members attended Yale for three days to study the research being done by the Yale mentors so they could help the students continue their research during an independent study.

At the end of their senior year, the scholars presented their research findings to their own student body at the Howard University Carnegie Endowed Visiting Professorship and Research Day, an annual event where 350 people converge on campus to hear minority nurse scientists share their research. Here, too, the Yale-Howard scholars were very well received. “There was such pride and appreciation from their fellow students,” reports Powell. “The scholars did so well and it made a positive impact on their peers.”

One such peer was Angela McKnight, RN, BSN. “When I heard the scholars give their presentation, I felt encouraged. The following summer, I applied for the internship at Yale,” says McKnight, who participated in the Yale-Howard Scholars Program in summer 2001.

A Shining Example

From this early success, a ripple effect began. Students from Howard signed up for the next internship in droves. The program began to attract national attention. The Yale-Howard scholars became highly desired by some of the best graduate schools in the country; 75% of the students have gone on to pursue advanced degrees. The scholars were invited to present their research at the Howard University College of Medicine’s annual Biomedical Research Symposium. “The appreciation of the medical community on campus reflects the respect for the research culture developed in the nursing school,” Powell notes.

Deans Gilliss and Powell decided to bring their partnership program to the attention of the National Institutes of Health, in hopes of obtaining grant funding that would help them continue and expand the project. The agency was so impressed with the program that it agreed to provide funding for five years. In 2001, the NIH identified the Yale-Howard Scholars Program as a model partnership program for developing a pool of minority nurse scientists who can contribute to the elimination of health disparities. Since then, the program has provided a prototype for seven similar nursing school Partnership Center initiatives throughout the United States. (See page TK.)

The two deans agree that the benefits to both universities are great. “We have truly benefited from the relationship with faculty at Howard University, such as [learning from them] how to access [minority] participants for research studies and breach barriers in hard to reach populations,” Gilliss says. Adds Powell, “Yale’s influence helped us cultivate a research culture and a capacity for scientific education. We are experiencing an increase in applications to our undergraduate and graduate schools, attracting more students and faculty interested in research. And we are experiencing an increase in funding for research projects as well.”

Yale, which does not have an undergraduate nursing program, has also gained much from the fresh perspectives and cultural diversity that the BSN students from Howard bring to the campus. “Our faculty are more aware of how their scientific work can and should impact health disparities,” Gilliss explains. “It is exciting to have these extraordinary students on campus. There has been an increase in our graduate school admissions as well as an increase in faculty applications. Nationally, we are being recognized as an institution that values diversity in our faculty and student populations and that welcomes diversity of thought, culture and country of origin.”

Gilliss’ excitement is shared by the Howard scholars who have participated in the initiative, including the most recent group of four students who attended the summer 2002 program. The scholars are immersed in graduate- and doctoral-level culture. The seminars and networking events they attend pull them into the world of research and enable them to experience what happens at the higher levels of learning.

“I learned so much at Yale. It was an awesome experience,” recalls McKnight, who graduated from Howard University in 2002 and will be attending graduate school in the fall at George Mason University in Virginia. She wants to teach and, ultimately, become a nurse scientist conducting research in minority communities. “I am more critical of research studies now,” she says. “You can’t take the numbers at face value. You have to look at the sample used in the study.

“The partnership with Yale is opening doors for us,” McKnight continues. “We need more partnerships like this! This was a new experience for me as a person of color and as a student. I am excited to get involved so I can make sure that research is representative of and real for the minority population.”

McKnight says the hands-on research experience she acquired at Yale helped her truly understand what being a nurse scientist is all about. “The internship at Yale has opened my eyes to the possibilities,” she comments. “It has given me a greater understanding of how research works and how projects are determined worthy for funding. Research makes sense; without research, how will we know how new medicines, for example, impact our [minority] community if the members of our community are not involved in the research studies? Research is so important to our future and it is a critical part of nursing. We’re the ones who are on the front lines with the patient. Patients trust us. Our population needs us.”