“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” These were the astounding words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Unfortunately, this is, in part, still a dream. Sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners are not sitting together at the table of brotherhood. Rather, sons and daughters of former slaves and former slave owners are hiding underneath a table of institutional inequities, especially in nursing. A great deal of work must be done in order for this dream to come true. However, some of this work must be put into the hands of successful African American nurses, who ought to feel a sense of obligation to motivate and empower other African American nurses and nursing students. There are, indeed, accomplished African American nurses out there, but not enough. Nonetheless, are we holding our younger brothers’ and sisters’ hands as we should be? This can be put into practice with enlightening and enriching high school and college mentorship programs.
According to a 2013 survey conducted by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and the National Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers, the RN population is 6% African American. Additionally, data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s (AACN) annual survey revealed that 9.6% of students enrolled in baccalaureate nursing programs in 2013 were African American. At the master’s level, 14.4% were African American; only 14.2% were African American at the doctoral level.
These statistics reveal that not only is there a tremendous shortage of African American nurses in the workforce, but there are not many African Americans being enrolled into nursing programs, despite recruitment efforts that have been put forth. This is problematic when considering the population of patients; the nursing workforce is not reflective of the changing and diverse demographics of the United States population. Mentorship programs can help to increase enrollment rates, help the African American nursing shortage, and help with the deliverance of culturally competent nursing care.
There are several recruitment programs for potential African American nurses, but is this enough? For example, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) joined with the AACN in 2008 to launch the RWJF New Careers in Nursing scholarship program. The program is designed to alleviate the nation’s nursing shortage by dramatically expanding the pipeline of students from minority backgrounds in accelerated nursing programs. In January 2010, the AACN published a set of expectations for nurses completing graduate programs and created faculty resources needed to develop nursing expertise in cultural competency. Several scholarships for African American nurses are also available. Additionally, the RWJF initiated the Doctoral Advancement in Nursing project in 2013 to enhance the number of minority nurses completing PhD and DNP degrees.
During my years at the University of Connecticut (UConn), I was awarded multiple scholarships, including the Yale Minority Nursing Scholarship, the Husky Nurse Scholarship, and the Chi Eta Phi Scholarship. All of these scholarships in my recollection were awarded to me because of merit and because I was from a minority background. What about mentorship programs? Why weren’t these offered to me?
As I reflect on my own undergraduate experience, I remember being very grateful for the scholarship funds. But I also remember being unprepared for the culture shock that I was about to face at the UConn campus in Storrs, Connecticut. Current literature highlights the fact that African American students in predominantly white institutions find it difficult to reach a level of comfort and acceptance within the new cultural environments. Students have reported feeling underrepresented, which results in feelings of loneliness, isolation, and frustration.
It has also been noted that the smaller the number of minority students on campus, the greater the problems because of limited social contacts. Out of my class of over 100 students, approximately 10 of these students were from minority backgrounds. Though feeling extremely proud and esteemed for becoming a graduate of the UConn School of Nursing, I would have been even more grateful to have a successful African American mentor who consistently told me, “You got this!” Self-empowerment and motivation can only go so far. What about those students and new nurses who require a pat on the back from the hand of a “brotha or sista” who truly understands and has “been there and done that”?
A few months ago, I was asked to become a mentor for an African American high school student, NiaMarie Jackson, who was inspired to become a nurse while dealing with her mother’s lifelong diagnosis of HIV. Our mentorship experience has been focused on effective nurse-patient relationships. She revealed to me that she had been included in a trial to test the efficacy of drugs that would decrease the likelihood of vertical transmission. Her childhood consisted of multiple visits to doctors and nurses who all deeply impacted her life and led her in the direction of becoming an aspiring nurse.
We developed a wonderful rapport. The very first meeting consisted of an emotional, heartfelt sharing of experiences. It felt as though I had known this ambitious young lady for more than an hour. She reminded me of myself when I was younger. Just as I had done, she participated in many programs and was doing very well academically. I found myself becoming frequently concerned as her mentor. I often questioned her about her college application process. If I had not heard from her in a few days, I became worried.
She is currently doing exceptionally well and has been accepted to Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Here, she will pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing. According to NiaMarie, the mentorship experience not only “reassured me that I wanted to become a nurse, but I gained a new outlook on life and how to deal with different people in different situations.”
Every nurse from a minority background should be able to experience this. There is nothing more gratifying than knowing you have helped a member from an underrepresented group become successful while contributing to the diversity of today’s workforce. My mentee knows that I am only a phone call, e-mail, or text away as a source of support.
Mentorship should be considered as the main vehicle for African American nursing success. It allows African American nurses to connect on a level of cultural familiarity. It is easier for the student to say, “If he or she can do it, then I can do it too.” I can happily say that I am a witness to this. Dr. Martin Luther King’s wishes may still be a dream; however, it is not an impossible dream. His efforts need to continue with the African American nurses who are successful. We need to feel a sense of obligation to help others from minority backgrounds with their accomplishments. When this happens, there may be a possibility of sons and daughters of former slaves and former slave owners sitting together at a table of brotherhood and sisterhood.
Latoya Lewis, RN, MSN, is employed at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, CT as a medical surgical nurse. While obtaining her master’s degree in nursing education, she has developed a passion in reaching out educationally to underrepresented populations.