As Black History Month closes, Minority Nurse interviewed Martha Dawson, DNP, RN, FACHE, and assistant professor in the Nursing and Health Systems Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing (UABSON). Dawson is also director for the Nursing Health Systems Leadership (NHSL) Division at UAB. The NHSL division includes nursing administration, clinical nurse leaders (CNL), and nursing informatics students. She is also the historian for the National Black Nurses Association.
Dawson, who knew early on that nursing was her path, earned her doctoral degree in nursing after many of her colleagues encouraged and prodded her to advance her studies. The challenges she faced, the experiences she had and her determination will resonate with many minority nurses.
“As I would mentor younger nurses and encouraged them to continue their education to the doctorate level many would say, ‘But, you don’t have a doctorate,’” says Dawson. “I knew then that I had to be the role model and earn a doctorate so I would not become a barrier to young nurses seeking higher education. I have always enjoyed learning and sharing my knowledge.”
The following is our Q&A with Dawson.
Why did you choose to become a nurse?
Becoming a nurse was just something I wanted do from a very young age because I could help people from birth to end-of-life. I can recall telling my father that I wanted to be a nurse. When he asked me repeatedly what type of nurse, I kept replying an RN—I had no idea about the vast career options at such a young age.
I can recall begging my mom one Christmas for a doll that had a medical kit including syringe, stethoscope, bandages, clutches, and arm and leg casts. Nursing provides me with so many career options from providing hands-on care, teaching, mentoring, research, and leadership, and most importantly paying it forward to help others become nurses. Then, there were the times when I took care of my grandmother when she broke her knee and my father when he burned his back. I can also recall when my brother dislocated his leg and I my big toe—mom reset or aligned them using wood splints without us going to a doctor. I was impressed and hooked on being a nurse.
How did you choose your path?
For me this a limiting question because nursing offers pathways, not just a path. Currently, I guess one would say that I am an educator.
I am a planner and strong believer in career mapping and progression. My current educator role is the result of taking a systematic approach to my nursing career by setting short- and long-term goals. I decided early in my nursing career that I wanted to teach, but only after I acquired the expertise to share both lived experiences and book knowledge—in short, I wanted to walk in the shoes of those I would be educating. Therefore, my nursing career started as a BSN nurse in a cardiovascular open-heart intensive care unit where I provided direct care and worked as relief charge nurse and then charge nurse.
Then, like many nurses, after transferring to a pre- and post-cardiovascular unit, I was asked to step into the nurse manager role with no preparation. Management and leadership came naturally to me, but I knew that I needed business and organization skills and knowledge. Therefore, I completed a dual master’s as a cardiovascular clinical nurse specialist (CNS) and in nursing administration that required completion of a 10-month hospital residency certificate program.
By the time I started the nursing administration studies, I had become hooked on leading and influencing change, plus being a voice for nursing both internal and external to the organization. Nursing administration became my passion, and I committed myself to learning as much as I could. I have held positions at the director level, associate chief operating positions, chief nurse, and executive VP level in practice setting, mostly academic medical centers. These roles provided me with the experience to teach the next generation of nurse leaders. I am still growing and determining the next chapters in my career.
I am a life-long leader and forever a student of our great profession.
What kinds of challenges did you face in your career and how did you overcome them?
My challenges would fill a book. There were very few minority students in my school, and it was rarely that more than two of us would be assigned to the same clinical group. In addition, there were very few African American faculty. During my BSN and MSN studies, I did not have a faculty member of color from any ethnicity. Most of the time, I felt the grading was fair, but then I had experiences where I would receive a B on a paper with no correction or remarks only the letter grade. Yes, I did follow up with the faculty and administration as needed.
My advice, and what helped me, is that challenges are there to overcome and to be used as stepping stones. When someone said that I could not do something or advance my career, I felt that it was my God-given right to prove the person wrong. My faith has made and kept me strong. I really try to set my goals and pathways in life and not allow others to determine my destiny. I know and respect that this approach and mental model will not work for everyone. Therefore, I try to help others find their voice.
Mentoring is important for any nurse, but especially for minority nurses. Did you have any kind of mentoring relationship?
I really did not have a mentor(s) early in my career, as I progressed in my career there were leaders that I would say have served as good coaches for me. During my doctorate education, I had my first African American nursing faculty—31 years after becoming a nurse.
Do you mentor young (or new-to-nursing) nurses now?
I mentor everyone that will allow me, from elementary school to doctorate level students. Giving back and investing in others is a personal charge that I have accepted to afford others a smoother path. I mentor nurses, other healthcare professionals and those who aren’t nurses/healthcare professionals. Mentorship is a bidirectional relationship.
However, as a mentor it has to be about the mentee and their career goals. For me as a mentor, the relationship keep me current with professional and society issues, and it improves my listening skills so I can hear and support the mentee. It is key that mentees come to the relationship with a desire to focus and put in the time. Too often, I believe the mentees fail to appreciate the work that will be required of them. However, a good mentor will help mentees step outside of their comfort zones and encourage them to excel beyond the level of the mentor.
True mentorship must include self-assessment, self-reflection, and the willingness to change and reinvent oneself if necessary. It is a learning and growing process that never ends. I encourage my mentees to outgrow me and seek advice from others. In addition, I tell them that if I can only get them to my level of performance, accomplishment, or achievement, then I have failed them because it is not about me, but them. I should help them do more, give more, achieve more, and go further. The mentees help and allow me to sow into their success and support them as I transition into a different phase of my career.
In short, each mentee is a part of my succession plan to ensure that the profession and world are in good hands with the next generations of nurses, nurse leaders, and teachers.
What is the most beneficial outcome of increasing the diversity of the current nursing workforce?
I believe the greatest benefit of having a diverse nursing workforce is the role model and mentoring that can be provided to students of different races and ethnicities to help them enter, matriculate, and graduate from nursing programs. Next, if the profession truly wants to improve population health, then we must have nurses that have lived experiences of the populations we are trying to help.
In the same manner, if we want to create a culture of health, it is important that the owners of culture are engaged on the front end and that the engagers look like them and understand them. There is also a business and economic case to be made that we rarely read about in the literature; nursing is a great profession and one of the few occupations that can continue to earn a livable wage during an economic recession. Nursing as a career can help improve the economic status of families and improve the long-term health outcomes of whole communities for generations. I appreciate diversity at all levels. However, we have to be careful of the global approach to diversity, i.e., where we are counting everything to avoid addressing the real issues of race and ethnicity.
We need more men in nursing but not to just increase the “diversity count.” In other words, I still want to know the breakdown of male nurses by age, race, and ethnicity. Then, we have to address the issue of diversity and inclusivity. Diversity without inclusivity is just a pen, paper, and number game. My motto is that diversity is the quilt that creates a beauty pattern, but inclusivity is like tapestry, many different colors of threads creating a picture. Therefore, an organization has to ask, “Is our vision of diversity a pattern or a picture of interconnectivity?”
What are the biggest barriers for young students of color to become nurses and how can that be changed?
After serving as the principal investigator for two HRSA workforce grants, I am convinced that if we want to increase diversity in nursing and the medical field, we have to start with pre-K through 7th grade.
Nursing is a science-based discipline, and students must be introduced to the profession with the understanding that they have to take the STEM-related courses. The lack of preparation in math and science is the biggest problem facing our students. Prerequisite courses derail many of our pre-nursing students of color. Therefore, they cannot wait to take chemistry, advanced math, anatomy, and physiology, and other related science courses. These courses are needed prior to college entry.
The second major problem is related to high school and freshman counselors. Top performing high school students are receiving information on nursing as a career option. Then many students of color, even some with the GPA, are being mis-counseled and advised against nursing because of the rigor of the program. In addition, many schools of nursing that are concerned about their NCLEX pass rates are growing and holding more and more seats for their “honor programs” thus making it more difficult for that pre-nursing student with an ACT of 20 and GPA of 3.5 to even be considered for the nursing program.
Finally, we still have the issue of lack of diversity among SON faculty. Nursing must become more committed to developing a diverse academic workforce. A great starting point would be to increase faculty diversity to be 10% higher than the state demographic profile because we have a lot of catching up to do.
I still love nursing and think it was the best choice for me. I am not sure what I will be when I grow up, but it will have something to do with nursing. Oh, not grow up, but when I retire.