May L. Wykle, PhD, RN, FAAN, FGSA, dean of Case Western Reserve University’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing in Cleveland, remembers the days back in the 1950s when staff members at Martins Ferry Hospital in Martins Ferry, Ohio, referred to her as their “pioneer.” As the hospital’s only African American nurse, and one of the first African American nurses anywhere in the country to be working at an all-white hospital, Wykle blazed a trail that many other nurses of color would follow.

“This was back in the days when bias was legal and the hospitals had not had any African American nursing students,” she explains. “Most of the diploma schools, at least in Ohio at that time, did not accept African Americans.”

Today, at age 73, May Wykle is one of the nation’s most distinguished nursing leaders and educators, as well as an internationally recognized expert in the fields of geriatric and mental health nursing. In addition to being the first African American dean of the Bolton School, she is also the Florence Cellar Professor of Gerontology Nursing and director of the school’s University Center on Aging and Health. Throughout her nearly 40-year career at Case, she has made it her personal mission to bring more minorities into the nursing profession. Yet back in the day, this self-described “small-town girl” from Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, was denied entrance to several nursing schools because of her race.

One school in Akron, Ohio, where a high school classmate had been accepted, rejected Wykle because it didn’t have another African American student for her to room with. It’s not that they didn’t consider the possibility of her rooming with a white student.

“They considered it,” she recalls with a laugh, “and the answer was ‘no.’”

Wykle’s interest in the health care field began early. She says she originally planned on becoming a physician. After graduating from high school, she worked for a year as a nurse’s aide at Martins Ferry Hospital near her hometown. “I worked with nurses who were good mentors for me,” she recalls. “I changed my mind and decided I wanted to be a nurse.”

Not that she had any role models to emulate. Wykle had never seen an African American nurse—or doctor, for that matter—until she began pursuing her nursing education. She had been accepted to Martins Ferry Hospital’s diploma program after working at the hospital for a year and being allowed to take the entrance exam, which she passed. This made her the first African American to attend the hospital’s nursing school.

But in those days Martins Ferry Hospital—now known as East Ohio Regional Hospital—wasn’t large enough to provide adequate training in pediatric, psychiatric and communicable disease nursing. To receive education in these areas, nursing students had to travel to Cleveland. It was there, in the big city, that Wykle saw black nurses and doctors for the first time.

“I was shocked. I mean, if you [didn’t] see them, you [didn’t] realize there were [any] African American doctors [and nurses],” she says. “One of the head nurses in the [tuberculosis] unit was African American—and she was a ‘toughie,’ too.”

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This “tough” nurse, who also taught several of the students’ clinicals, became one of her first role models. Wykle also met another African American nurse who lived across the hall from her in the nurses’ residence where nursing students lived while attending school in Cleveland.

“She really took me under her wing and was very helpful in [showing me how to] navigate the system,” Wykle remembers. “[Seeing other African American nurses] gave me some confidence in knowing [that I] could succeed.”

Moving into Academia

After earning her nursing diploma, Wykle began her career as a staff nurse at the Cleveland Psychiatric Institute, where she rose to the position of head nurse and then supervisor. She returned to school during this time and, after completing a BSN degree from Case Western Reserve, she became an instructor at the Cleveland Psychiatric Institute and, later, director of nursing education.

She eventually decided that she needed graduate education and went back to Case to pursue a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing. The nursing school’s dean was so impressed with her that she asked Wykle if she would be interested in joining the faculty after completing her graduate studies.

Wykle says the offer shocked her, because there was only one African American instructor at Case Western Reserve at the time (1969). But she accepted the job teaching psychiatric nursing, recognizing it as an excellent vantage point from which she could advocate for the admission of more minority nursing students into the predominantly white school. She eventually earned a doctorate in education at Case.

Although Wykle hadn’t originally planned on becoming a nursing educator, once she began teaching she realized how much she enjoyed it. “I like teaching because I like to see students develop and grow,” she says. “I like the ‘aha!s’ you see in students as they learn about nursing. My favorite part is teaching them how to relate to patients.”
Caring for patients is where what Wykle likes to call “the art and soul of nursing” comes into play. “The art of nursing has to do with the humanness of the interpersonal relations,” she explains. “The caring piece is the art. It’s really the art and soul, because it’s through the soul of the nurse that you relate to the patient.”

She stayed on at Case Western after completing her PhD, holding positions as an assistant professor, tenured associate professor, chair of the psychiatric nursing department and associate dean for community affairs. She also served as professor and director of nursing at the Howard M. Hanna Pavilion, an 86-bed psychiatric unit at the University Hospitals of Cleveland.

Continuing to advance her expertise as a gerontology and mental health scholar and researcher, Wykle accepted a post-doctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health. She has gone on to receive international acclaim for her pioneering research in geriatric mental health, minority elder health, caring for patients with dementia, and family and minority caregivers.

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A Lifetime of Leadership

Dr. May Wykle’s curriculum vitae is more than 75 pages long. Some of the highlights of her remarkable career include:

  • Induction as a Fellow in the American Academy of Nursing.
  • Serving as a member of the White House Conference on Aging.
  • Serving as one of 12 national nursing leaders on the advisory board for Johnson & Johnson’s National Campaign for Nursing’s Future.
  • Receiving the National Black Nurses Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • Serving as the 24th president of Sigma Theta Tau International, the Honor Society of Nursing.
  • Being appointed the first Pope Eminent Scholar at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Human Development at Georgia Southwestern State University.
  • Receiving the American Journal of Nursing Book of the Year Award for her book Serving Minority Elders in the 21st Century.
  • Appointment by former Governor Bob Taft to the Ohio Commission on Minority Health.
  • Receiving the John S. Diekhoff Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching at Case Western Reserve University.

Her work with both Sigma Theta Tau International and the Bolton School have taken her around the world, including several visits to Africa, where she helped establish a BSN program at a university in Uganda and an MSN program at the University of Zimbabwe. “[International travel] opens your eyes [and gives you] a better perspective of some of the health care needs around the world and [the nurse’s role in addressing them],” she says.

Helping others understand the global aspect of nursing is among the things Wykle enjoys about serving as dean. Yet she was initially reluctant to accept the position when it was offered to her in 2001. At that time she was associate dean, a role that she felt was a good fit for her.

“At first [when I was offered the dean’s job] I said, ‘Absolutely not. That is not my role.’ I always saw myself as [more of a second-in-command] person,” she explains. “I’m a good helper. I’ve always liked that role as a helper and a supporter. Finally I said I’d do it [on a temporary basis] for 18 months.”

Eventually, the university’s provost convinced her to take the job on a permanent basis. For Wykle, this new leadership position became the culmination of her lifelong devotion to increasing educational opportunities in nursing for African Americans and other people of color. “When you become the dean, you can put into practice some of the vision of where you think the profession ought to be and where the school ought to be,” she says.

Making Nursing the Profession of Choice

One of the accomplishments Wykle is most proud of as dean is maintaining a high enrollment of minority students at a time when college admissions in general are declining for minorities nationwide, especially among African-Americans. At the start of the 2006-07 academic year, 26% of incoming freshman nursing students at Case Western Reserve were people of color.

“I think some of the decline [in minority nursing enrollments in recent years] came about because minority students were being courted in other areas, [such as] medicine, business or engineering,” she adds. “So the competition for attracting minorities into a profession suddenly increased.”

Dr. Wykle at the Dr. Wykle at the “Art and Soul of nursing” Celebration held this past June in her honor.

Part of the problem, Wykle believes, is that not enough has been done in the African American community to encourage young people to consider nursing as a career path. She also feels that more must be done to help prepare minority high school students for nursing careers by ensuring that they take the necessary science classes. Making financial assistance available is still another factor that can make a difference in recruiting and retaining minority nursing students.

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“Even if you provide a scholarship for them, some minority students still need a living stipend,” Wykle maintains. “The other [important] piece is working on making nursing the profession of choice for young minority families.”

That includes young men as well as women. “I always tell people I’m looking for a few good men,” she says. “Once you start getting minority [and male] students in and they see other [students who look like them], you find that they themselves will recruit others to come into the program.”

Under Wykle’s leadership, the Bolton School works with high school teachers and guidance counselors to recruit students from diverse backgrounds into nursing. The school has also increased the number of minority faculty to provide role models for minority students and is constantly working to “sell” the profession to prospective students.

“[Because] minority students [now] have the opportunity to go into [so many other rewarding professional careers], we need to make them understand how attractive nursing can be,” she emphasizes.

According to Wykle, the Bolton School has an above-average minority student retention record because of its focus on nurturing students by providing tutoring, advising and other support services. “We really believe in celebrating successes,” she says.

Still Blazing Trails

This past summer, Wykle herself was the subject of a history-making celebration. In recognition of her extraordinary leadership and commitment to both the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing and the nursing profession, Case Western Reserve University established the May L. Wykle Professorship in her honor. It is the first endowed chair ever named for an African American professor at Case and one of the first named for an African American woman in nursing at a major research university in the United States.

More than 400 individuals and organizations contributed a total of $1.5 million within a nine-month period to endow the professorship. And on June 22, the nursing school marked the occasion by hosting a gala event, “The Art and Soul of Nursing: A Celebration,” at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel. The celebration, which featured music, dancing, an “Art of Nursing” photography exhibit and speeches by former U.S. Congressman Louis Stokes, New York University College of Nursing dean Terry Fulmer, PhD, RN, FAAN, and Wykle, was attended by nearly 500 guests.

“That was a very humbling experience for me,” Wykle says.

At this point, you might expect someone who has accomplished so much, and has reached the age when most people have already retired, to call it a career. Wykle has no such plans and is looking to the future.

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“I’m sure there are some people who want me to retire tomorrow, because you can’t please everyone all the time,” she says. “But I never read in the Bible where God said to retire.”

The next big project that needs her attention at the nursing school is a bricks-and-mortar expansion to accommodate program growth. The Bolton School, which accepted approximately 33 new students a year when Wykle first became dean, now accepts between 80 and 90 a year. It currently has a total of over 950 students in its bachelor’s, master’s, clinical doctorate and PhD programs.

Wykle says she’ll continue to work as long as she enjoys it and as long as she still has a vision of where the school and the profession should be. “As a teacher, you have a responsibility to teach as long as you think you can make a contribution,” she reflects. “I think that one day something [inside] will say to me, ‘It’s time to go.’ But that’s not today.”

Case Western Reserve University to Establish its First Chair Named for an African American

May L. Wykle, dean of the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, honored with chair, one of the first named for an African American woman in nursing at major research university

CLEVELAND – Nearly 40 years ago, when asked by members of the African American community in Cleveland why she would even dream of working at predominantly white Case Western Reserve University, May L. Wykle, a small-town Ohio girl denied entrance to several nursing schools because she was black, said, “Well, someone has to hold the door open!”

Now, for Wykle, one of the country’s most beloved and honored nurse educators and dean of the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case, the door is wide open and nowhere near being closed for her or any other African American faculty and students. She has made it her personal mission to bring more minorities – particularly African Americans – into the nursing profession. And it’s because of that leadership and commitment that Case is honoring Wykle by establishing the May L. Wykle Professorship at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing.

Never before has a professorship been named for an African American at Case Western Reserve University. And never before has one person touched the lives of so many Case students, colleagues and faculty quite like Dean Wykle, who worries that still not enough is being done by nursing schools across the country to recruit and retain more African American students. Nor has enough been done in the black community, she says, to encourage young African American men and women to consider nursing as a career path.

The Wykle chair is one of the first named for an African American woman in nursing at major research university in the U.S.

A general nursing shortage is worrisome to the nursing profession and to the health of Americans. But to Wykle, a shortage in minority nurses is even more troublesome. Minority groups in the U.S. represent 25 percent of the population. African Americans, meanwhile, account for 12.1 percent of the population but only 4.9 percent of nurses (approximately 150,000 out of 2.2 million nurses employed in the U.S.). By 2015, one-third of the nation will be ethnically and culturally diverse, with African Americans expected to increase to 20 percent. Yet, African American student enrollment in baccalaureate nursing programs has experienced a steep drop in the past few years. In addition, cultural diversity among nurses enhances culturally competent care, Wykle says.

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Through Wykle’s leadership, minorities now make up about 21 percent of the Bolton School’s student enrollment.

“We need to bring more minorities into nursing – including nursing education – so we can help to eliminate health disparities in communities of color,” Wykle says. “Nurses of color can teach other nurses about how to communicate, how to understand cultural traditions concerning health and illness.”

A member of the Case faculty for more than 35 years, Wykle is an internationally recognized expert in the field of aging and a pioneer in psychiatric nursing. Her research interests include geriatric mental health, family caregiving, minority cargivers and caring for patients with dementia. She also serves as director of the University Center on Aging and Health at the Bolton School.

Wykle says she is sometimes surprised by the turns her career has taken.

When she was denied entrance to several nursing schools because she was black, Wykle was told that housekeeping or kitchen work might be more appropriate. Despite that rejection, she worked for a year as a nurse’s aide to merit admission. Through sheer determination, she became the first African American to attend the Ruth Brant School of Nursing in Martins Ferry, Ohio.

But while her resume lists professional degrees – which were earned at Case – as well as awards, associations, published works and elite appointments, Wykle remains most proud of her dedication to mentoring. She has initiated educational programs in Europe, Africa and Asia, including helping to start a master of science in nursing program at the University of Zimbabwe in Africa. She also was appointed the first Pope Eminent Scholar, the John and Betty Pope Chair, at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Human Development at Georgia Southwestern State University.

“The establishment of the May L. Wykle Professorship is a fitting way to honor a woman whose strength, compassion and leadership capture the art and soul of the nursing profession,” said John L. Anderson, Case provost and university vice president. “Dean Wykle continues to influence nursing issues on an international level while inspiring the many successes of the Bolton School of Nursing. The university is proud to be honoring such a pioneer in her field.”

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