Despite having the bilingual skills so desperately needed in the nursing industry today, many Hispanic nurses face steep challenges in their nursing careers. Educational demands, financial constraints, and family responsibilities all pull on the resources of Hispanic nurses around the country.
“Many are in jobs already and with that are their everyday responsibilities,” says Maria Elena Pina Fonti, MA, RN, president of the New York Chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses and an associate professor at Helene Fuld College of Nursing. Because of the emphasis on family priority in many Latino cultures, Hispanic nurses might be supporting members of their immediate and extended family including parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They might even be contributing to homes in their country of origin, says Fonti, all of which might limit their financial resources for paying for more school.
“They are straddling the worlds of work and educational development,” says Fonti. “Sometimes this is difficult for them because of everything else they carry on their shoulders.”
Fonti says one of the changes that will help Hispanics in nursing school is to see more people like them in academia. She recalls one student of hers who years ago did not participate in class much. When Fonti asked her why, the young woman said she was uncomfortable speaking up with an accent that people sometimes didn’t understand.
But Fonti uses this example as a great way for Latino nurses to understand their inherent worth as a nurse. “I told her, ‘If you have an accent, it is because you know more than one language. If you speak more than one language you are already ahead of the group,’” recalls Fonti. “When you go out into the world, the hospital will benefit from the people who speak a second language. You need to look at it as a positive.”
If people don’t understand your accent, she says, they will need to take the time to pay closer attention. “The big point, coming from an academic discipline in nursing,” says Fonti, “is to have more people who are reflective of the student body.”
And for the financial challenges, Fonti says associations and nursing organizations are a “strong pillar of support.” Nurses are able to develop professionally through these organizations, network, and find both formal and informal mentors. Many organizations also offer scholarships.
“We have to let them know it is something that is out there to help them,” says Fonti of scholarships and financial aid. Many Hispanic students don’t apply for scholarships because some feel doing so will single them out in a negative way, says Fonti. But in the long run, the more Latino nurses who can advance into academia and into hospital leadership positions will help develop the profession and the health of the nation at large.
Like other minority nurses who face challenges, Hispanic nurses have their own unique obstacles. “Every little step will help,” says Fonti. “The solution isn’t coming tomorrow, but we can chip away at it every day.”
With nearly two decades of nursing under his belt and as the current president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, Jose Alejandro now laughs when he recalls his first thoughts about being a nurse.
Working as a journalist for the U.S. Military in the Army, Alejandro remembers being a little squeamish. “I used to tell people I couldn’t stand the sight of blood,” he says with a laugh. “I had that notion in my head.”
But Alejandro’s career took a new turn when his position was eliminated and he had the choice to become a vocational nurse or a chef. That was when he discovered something new about the career. “Nursing is so diverse,” he says. “You have so many options and you can still be a nurse.”
With choices that included becoming a nurse in the business, clinic, or even corporate setting, Alejandro’s eyes opened to the possibilities. And he hopes many Hispanic nurses will be encouraged to take on new roles and work toward getting advanced degrees, despite the obstacles, because the need for their skills is great.
Alejandro dove into nursing training first in vocational nursing and then going on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing, and several advanced degrees. “It ended up being a perfect fit,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the military, I never would have known.”
Alejandro’s career has included jobs as varied as acting as the director of case management, being a nursing director, and an interim chief nursing officer. All the positions honed his nursing and communication skills, but also gave him the chance to use other talents like setting strategic goals. His two-year term as president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, which ends in July 2014, also allows him to bring a business focus to the organization.
He has learned valuable lessons with each post and says being in a national professional organization has certainly helped him make connections with others in the industry. But he also wants other nurses to realize sometimes the best advice comes from those you see on a regular shift.
“I think the big thing is to be open to mentorship,” he says, “and that can be people you work for or people who work for you.” Alejandro, for instance, has been helped enormously by younger staff whose social media skills surpass his own.
And Alejandro sees the future as especially bright for Hispanic nurses. “The big thing for nurses entering the field is that there are more opportunities today,” he says. Noting a brain drain as older nurses retire, Alejandro says new nurses, although underrepresented as a whole in the field, are a huge benefit to the Hispanic population and needed especially as Hispanic populations increase across the country. “They are in high demand,” he notes. “They are subject matter experts when it comes to cultural diversity, and being bilingual is a commodity.”
The biggest challenge he sees is to increase the numbers of Hispanic nurses with advanced degrees. “The biggest barriers are how to balance a professional career and family and your education,” says Alejandro. But with more programs that promote advanced education in the Hispanic community, even a slow increase in numbers will help.
See Our Champions of Nursing Diversity
Sign up now to get your free digital subscription to Minority Nurse