Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Sparking Early Interest

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A Delaware school district is exposing young students to careers in nursing.


The students who came into the nurse’s office at P.S. duPont Middle School in Wilmington, Del., would invariably begin playing with a stethoscope, testing their pulse oximetry or taking their temperatures. Richele Lawson, RN, the school nurse, would notice and begin talking to them about pursuing a career in nursing. Oh, I’m not smart enough. My family can’t afford to send me to college. Their concerns sounded familiar to Ms. Lawson, who was raised by a single parent and felt like she didn’t have the brains or bucks to become a healthcare professional. Hearing those same assumptions from her students triggered her to act. “I’d tell them, ‘You are smart enough and with the right grades you can go to school for free,’” she says. 

Students in Delaware, through the Student Excellence Equals Degree (SEED) program, can qualify for scholarships to Delaware State University, Delaware Technical Community College and the University of Delaware Associates in Arts Program if they maintain a 2.5 GPA in high school. “I knew we had to educate students about their options before their freshman year, so they were aware of the grades they had to maintain,” says Ms. Lawson. “I wanted to give them the knowledge and confidence to know they can become nurses.”

Community support

Ms. Lawson teamed up with other school nurses within the Brandywine School District to apply for a Nursing Innovations Fund Award, which is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and AARP. The fund awards up to $25,000 for work that addresses nursing’s role in building health equity and well-being and promoting a culture of health. The nurses were awarded a grant and used the funds to create the Brandywine Lifesavers program, which exposes students from underrepresented communities to what nurses do and gives them opportunities to see what it would be like to work in the profession.

All middle school students within the Brandywine School District were welcome to apply to the program, which was launched earlier this year. Students who applied had to write a letter describing their interest in the program, obtain a written recommendation from a school administrator or teacher and turn in letters from their parents that noted why their children were good candidates. 

The education began in-house, with the school nurses teaching the students the basics of CPR, checking vital signs and wound care. The students then went on field trips to the University of Delaware’s Center for Simulation Innovation, where they had the chance to take vital signs and perform chest compressions on training manikins. They then visited ChristianaCare, a large health system in the state, where nurses from several specialties set up stations the students visited to learn about the different areas of nursing they could pursue.

“We jumped at the opportunity to host the group,” says ChristianaCare Nursing Professional Development Manager Barbara Feeny, RN. “We’re the largest teaching hospital in Delaware and believe educational programs are tied to community health. Every one of our employees is a caregiver who believes in delivering patient care directly or indirectly through programs like these, which are vital to the health and well-being of the communities we serve.”

Ms. Feeny says the agenda for the workshop event was designed to be informative and engaging in order to capture the attention of middle school students. Stations were set up in a large room, allowing the students to rotate through several fun and hands-on presentations run by nurses, who talked to them about their daily activities and taught them how to perform the basic tasks of their specialty.

“It’s important for our staff to support and educate young people,” says Ms. Feeny. “They’re the future of the nursing workforce, and we can help grow the profession through creative partnerships. We also want to ensure the future of nursing reflects the rich diversity of our local communities. Teaching and inspiring young students will hopefully turn them on to a career in nursing.”

The ChristianaCare nurses showed up and showed out. “It was really great to watch them help our kids develop a passion for the profession,” says Ms. Lawson. “Seeing the turnout of staff nurses as well as administrators really meant a lot to the students, who were impressed busy professionals would make time to teach and connect with them.”

Inspiring change

When COVID hit, Ms. Lawson saw the lack of trust members of local minority communities had toward the vaccine. That was part of her inspiration for exposing students to a career in nursing. She hopes they eventually go back to their communities and take care of their family members and friends. “They might not trust me, but they’d trust their daughter or their neighbor,” says Ms. Lawson. “If students become nurses and give back to their communities, overall health care will improve. That was a big part of why we launched this program.”

Twenty-seven students have completed the program. One of the students says, “I can’t imagine what nurses go through seeing people sick or hurt every day, but I can imagine that helping people who need it is very fulfilling. I want to know what that feels like. Real heroes are people who see all the hurt in the world and try to fix it. Those people are nurses. They fix the hurt. That’s why I want to be in this program.”

Ms. Lawson’s face lights up when she’s asked about helping to run the program and what the experience has meant to her and the students. “I don’t want them to underestimate themselves, because they can achieve their goals,” she says. “If one student leaves the program and finds a love for nursing, it’s all been worth it. The students have a lot of passion. They just need someone to believe in them.” OSM

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