Ashley Merida BSN, RN is the president of the Phoenix chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses and talked with Minority Nurse recently to help mark Hispanic Heritage Month, held annually from September 15 to October 15. She says the organization’s advocacy for nursing in general and Hispanic nurses in particular has been a building block for her personal and professional growth.
Merida, who works in solid organ transplant of the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix, says she has known nursing was the career path for her since she was a child. “My younger brother was sick and in and out of the hospital, and I spent lots of time in the hospital visiting,” she says. For a while, Merida shifted her career aspirations to firefighting, but, she says with a laugh, “my heart went back to nursing.”
Through a bilingual nurse fellowship program at Phoenix College, Merida started her nursing education and became passionate about giving back to her community. “It was a calling for me,” she says. She found both an opportunity to do that and a new core community when she accompanied a friend to a NAHN meeting in 2017. “I heard the president at the time, Veronica Vitale, speak and she was so inspiring and motivating,” she says. “I found a new family in that moment.” With less than 10 percent of nurses identifying as Hispanic, Merida says she’s often the only Latina nurse in a room. But at the NAHN meeting, she was surrounded by others who shared her heritage and had so many accolades. “I felt like I belonged,” she says.
From her first NAHN meeting, Merida set a goal to become a leader in the organization and to eventually lead as the chapter president. As she became a regular at NAHN meetings, Merida says her fellow NAHN members were an excellent support during times when things got tough. “They helped me keep going during the times when I wanted to quit,” she says. The chapter members have an energy and warmth, she says, that includes checking in on each other, asking about their families, and understanding their nursing lives.
NAHN’s members set high goals for themselves that are modeled by their own work and advocacy. They work with nurses and nursing students to connect preceptors with students, to offer DACA-friendly scholarships, to advance financial literacy, and to offer CEUs. They also partner with schools so nurses can speak to younger children and tell them about nursing careers.
Merida recognizes the efforts of Hispanic nurses before her including Dr. Ester Ruiz, a co-founder of NAHN’s Phoenix chapter. Ruiz made an impact for the entire community, says Merida, and is still on NAHN’s Phoenix chapter’s board. Merida feels the responsibility to honor Ruiz’s work and that of other Hispanic nursing leaders who struggled for equity for nurses and Hispanic patients. “It’s important,” she says, “to pave the way.”
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.”
Dan Suarez, MA, RN, already has goals set for when he assumes the presidency of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses next July.
The most recent convention in New Orleans showed Suarez how important it is to go beyond the typical convention boundaries. “One of the things I wanted to do was to leave a footprint behind in the community where we were holding the conference,” says Suarez. He arranged to have nurses volunteer with Stop Hunger Now, an international hunger relief agency, to package up meals for people who needed them. He hoped to have 50 nurses show up to package 10,000 meals in four hours. He ended up with nearly 80 volunteers who whipped through their task, packaging up 10,068 meals in two short hours.
“It was amazing to watch,” he says. “It was like an assembly line – they were pouring, stacking, packaging. It was a phenomenal event.” Suarez hopes, as president, that he can continue to take that kind of team building to a larger scale, connecting and invigorating all the chapters around the country.
While acting as the president of the association’s New York chapter, Suarez worked hard to breathe new life into the chapter, trying different tactics to bring in new members and to discover what was most important to the nurses.
Mentorship is foremost in Suarez’s plans. In his New York chapter, he saw many nurses who were dropping out of nursing school. “First we had to find out what was happening,” says Suarez. “The number one reason is financial and while we can’t do anything about that, we can lead them to grants and scholarships.” Helping others with test taking skills was also important, but Suarez also realized nurses wanted to get into leadership roles, but didn’t know exactly how to get there.
Suarez was talking with his family (both his wife and daughter are nurses) and they all said the same thing. “We need nurses in leadership roles because they make decisions,” says Suarez. “But I said you can’t go from a staff nurse to a leader of a hospital. They expect you to be a leader, but they don’t show you how.”
Suarez hopes to gain funding and other financial support to launch a nationwide Mentorship Academy to help nurses connect and learn from one another to advance their careers. With 38 national chapters, the undertaking is big, Suarez says, but obtaining grants can help each chapter implement the program.
Suarez also recognizes the importance of supporting the chapter presidents to help them make their own chapters thrive. “We want to give them the support they need because with support, we think we can help them and make them better because their hearts are in the right place.” Suarez says he would like to help the boards with the tools or education or whatever needs they might have to make their chapters grow. Even something as simple as relevant webinars that all chapter treasurers can take, for instance can make a difference.
“These are all the little things we feel will help,” he says.
And Suarez hopes the National Association of Hispanic Nurses will act as a trailblazer for other associations who want to make a great impression on the communities where they hold conferences. Not only do the conference attendees feel good because they have done something good for others, but they have also been able to reach out to the community that is supporting their gathering. “We need to start something that will catch fire with all the associations wherever they go,” he says. “Imagine if every association did that?”
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.
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