The need for trained and qualified nurses to reflect the diversity of the United States today is crucial. The National Student Nurses Association’s (NSNA) Breakthrough to Nursing (BTN) Project, which encourages culturally diverse students to pursue nursing, is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. The Project has inspired many to reach out to their communities and help students realize that nursing is not only a viable career, but an enriching one.


The NSNA was established in 1952 to help nursing students reach the top of their field. Through NSNA, students are able to find mentors, including prominent members of the American Nurses Association; seek their guidance; and learn from their experience. From its inception, the NSNA has been popular. It allowed its members to become a part of the fabric of other nursing students’ lives. With a wide, supportive membership base, the NSNA has a position to affect social change and has done so throughout the years. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of racial desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and later, when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into legislation, the NSNA used its clout to help break down barriers preventing ethnically and racially diverse students from gaining admission to nursing schools across the country.

The Breakthrough to Nursing program was established when racial turmoil in America was at its peak. The battle for civil rights spilled over into health care. Racially and ethnically diverse people were denied access to nursing schools, and because of this, the United States was desperate for nurses who could provide culturally competent care. On May 2, 1965, NSNA’s House of Delegates passed the resolution that launched the Breakthrough to Nursing Project. Its mission was to organize, represent, and mentor students to become practitioners sensitive to the cultural diversity that exists in society.

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To begin their work, NSNA members mentored primary and secondary school minority students, encouraging them to apply to nursing school, then helped them complete their degrees upon admittance. The efforts were local, with members of the community helping one another learn and grow. They called into question the discriminating admission policies of many nursing schools, and committees worked with nursing associations, school directors, and state agencies to try to have them changed.

In 1971, BTN received federal grant money to expand their operation to a multitude of target cities, including Phoenix, Arizona; Los Angeles, California; Denver, Colorado; Columbus, Ohio; and Chicago, Illinois. The program helped the diverse populations in each city and opened NSNA leaders’ eyes to the health care inequities people faced in the United States.

Over the years, BTN has strived to not only raise awareness and address the struggles minority nurses face but to expand the scope of their work to include all types of underrepresented people in the nursing field. The program has been adapted to include the needs of nontraditional students, male nurses, the physically challenged, and economically and educationally disadvantaged nurses. With the ever-changing U.S. population and continuing need for nurses who provide culturally competent care, BTN is as relevant today as it was 45 years ago. In 1986, when the nursing shortage started to spike enormously, the BTN Project expanded its goals to recruit all qualified individuals into nursing. In the coming years, BTN will continue to adapt to social change and grow to support all students who need guidance when undertaking a career in nursing. “I believe BTN helps students become more aware of what is happening around them,” says Reneka Turner, NSNA’s Breakthrough to Nursing Director. “It puts the responsibility on them to ensure we are being inclusive in our advocacy for an equally representative nursing pool. It brings to the forefront the health disparities that exist in this country.”

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Breakthrough to Nursing today

In addition to supporting and mentoring underrepresented nursing students, the Breakthrough to Nursing Project helps promote the development of the skills needed to be responsible, accountable nurses, respectful of the differences and similarities between people. As outlined in their mission, BTN advocates for high-quality care, utilizing the principles of transcultural nursing, and facilitates the development of peer support systems, which enhance recruitment and retention within the nursing profession.

“The main goal of the BTN Project is to ensure that we have exceptional nurses to fill the imminent nursing shortage that will take place soon,” says Turner. “The BTN program is interested in creating a population of nurses that is more reflective of the diversity we have in this country.” To accomplish these goals, BTN works through local chapters and community involvement. Many student nursing associations have a BTN chapter. Wish there was a BTN chapter in your neighborhood? It’s actually relatively easy to start one. The NSNA recommends five to 10 members commit themselves to the Project for at least a year. Then, when the group has been established, members research nursing schools in the area, noting admission requirements, program length, type of program, and financial aid offered. Once the research is done, then the real work begins.

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Members of the Breakthrough to Nursing Project speak in high schools, junior highs, churches, and boys and girls clubs. They discuss what nursing is like on a day-to-day basis and why it’s such a rewarding career. They explain the vast array of career opportunities in nursing and what it takes to do well in nursing school (personality traits, academic prerequisites, grades, etc.). After this, the members of BTN guide potential nursing students through the process of applying to nursing school and help students navigate the coming challenges.

The BTN website provides tools and suggestions for those who are thinking about starting their own BTN Project. Because this is a grassroots campaign, new chapters bring BTN closer to its goal of recruiting nurses to the frontlines of health care.

Breakthrough to Nursing celebrates

The 45th year of Breakthrough to Nursing is cause for celebration. Although there is still a long way to go in delivering culturally competent care in the United States, the BTN Project has brought the country forward by leaps and bounds when it comes to recruiting minority nurses.

For their anniversary, Breakthrough to Nursing adopted a theme: “Igniting Dreams: Providing the momentum to reach new heights and empowering success.” The 2010–2011 goals are developing and promoting the “Breakthrough Institute” as a collection of tools to assist in the recruitment, education, and retention of underrepresented groups; working with COSP to encourage involvement in BTN initiatives; and publishing a column updating students on BTN activities in Imprint, the official magazine of NSNA.

Throughout its 45 years, BTN has been igniting a passion for nursing across the country, helping fulfi ll the dreams of those who might have never thought a nursing career was possible. “As long as there continues to be disparities in the nursing population and health care as a whole, BTN will be relevant,” says Turner. “The Breakthrough to Nursing program will continue to evolve and adapt to our ever-changing social environment.”

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