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As the U.S. struggles to find solutions to the current nursing shortage, one strategy to address the emerging crisis continues to surface: Nursing schools need to strengthen their efforts to attract more men and minority students. Though nursing schools enroll more diverse students than medical (10.5%) or dental colleges (11%), the overwhelming majority of students in today's baccalaureate nursing programs are female (91%) from non-minority backgrounds (73.5%). Considering the fact that females comprise about 51% of the population and minority group representation is rapidly approaching 33%, today's nursing students do not mirror the nation's population.

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Why is it important to attract underrepresented groups into nursing? According to an April 2000 report prepared by the National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice, a culturally diverse nursing workforce is essential to meeting the health care needs of the nation's population. Despite their small numbers, minority nurses are significant contributors to the provision of health care services in this country and leaders in the development of models of care that address the unique needs of minority populations. Given the projections for a deepening nursing shortage, the need to attract nontraditional students into nursing and expand the capacity of baccalaureate programs is also gaining in importance.

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According to the latest National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses (2000) prepared by the federal Division of Nursing within the Bureau of Health Professions (HRSA), only 5.4% of all RNs are men; only 12.3% of RNs represent racial or ethnic minority groups. Though the current percentages are low in comparison to national norms, these figures do represent a slight increase over the previous sample survey which identified 264,000 minority nurses in 1996 compared to over 331,000 minority nurses today.

Studies point to many reasons why men and minority group members do not pursue nursing: role stereotypes, economic barriers, few mentors, gender biases, lack of direction from early authority figures, misunderstanding about the practice of nursing, and increased opportunities in other fields. Compounding the lack of student diversity, and further impacting minority recruitment efforts, is the fact that nursing school deans and faculty also comprise a gender-skewed, racially homogenous group. Men are represented by only 3.5% of faculty and 2.4% of deans; minorities represent only 8.7% of faculty and 6.8% of deans. 

The Humanitarian Side of a Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A bachelor of science in nursing could be the perfect program type for you. It can allows you to spread your wings within the country you study, and really experience the best, and most challenging aspects of nursing. However, it could also lead to towards a career that really helps the world in a unique way. Travelling the world, even for short periods of time, to make a difference to the people who live in countries and communities that don’t normally get access to the skills and knowledge you have acquired.

Sharon Tissell, RN, Tim Harrison, RN, MPH and Martina Ford are three nurses who dreamt of doing just that. Their experiences working as humanitarian relief nurses were recently documented in the magazine Minority Nurse.

All three of nurses found their professional sweet spot. They don’t do it for the money! They only receive a modest stipend and often to endure modest and/or dangerous living conditions for months at a time.

These humanitarian medical relief nurses make multiple trips each year to the very places we see in the news and are advised to avoid - places like the Syrian-Lebanese border. This area has experienced the largest exodus of refugees in recent history in recent years, as Syrians flee their country after a brutal government crackdown and civil war began in 2011.

Another area these nurses have worked in is South Sudan, Africa’s newest nation. Ethnic rivalries destabilized a fragile government which led to violence, bloodshed, and the internal displacement of tens of thousands of people before these nurses arrived.

The Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan flattened towns and villages, is yet another nation visited by nurses in response to the disaster, which crippled the country’s capacity to deliver basic services and medical care to its people.

What motivates Tissell, Harrison, and Ford to go back into these situations over and over again is the opportunity to offer unconditional care, comfort, and compassion to the world’s most vulnerable populations. Across vast geographic, cultural, and ethnic boundaries, their work goes to the heart of what nursing is: caring for those who really need it, comforting those who are suffering and being there to offer compassion during difficult times in people´s lives. The satisfaction they receive from carrying out their job well compensates for any hardship they endure.

These nurses don’t let politics and war keep them away. While fearless, humanitarian relief nurses are not as reckless as some might consider. They receive intensive security training from their sponsoring organizations. They also work within highly coordinated teams, where personal safety is valued highly. These nurses don´t see what they do as a personal sacrifice, either.

“It’s not about you,” says Harrison, a nurse with Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. Harrison lives in Maine when he is not traveling with MSF. “It’s really about the direct connection between donors [of humanitarian aid] and beneficiaries. You’re simply the conduit,” says Harrison.

A Beneficial Break From the Norm

While nursing can be a satisfying career, many nurses report that it can become repetitious. Working internationally can be a great way to “break out of the doldrums going into your shift every day,” says Sue Averill, RN, cofounder and president of One Nurse At a Time, an organization that provides information and scholarships to nurses who would like to work in humanitarian relief.

Averill herself has gone on eight missions with MSF and several others through other organizations. Averill says experiences in the ER, ICU, surgical, and critical care floors are great preparation. Courses in public health and tropical diseases such as Dengue fever, malaria, and others rarely seen in the West are also perfect for preparation.

Critical thinking skills that empower you to be resourceful and in situations where supplies, medicines, and equipment are limited can also be a godsend. Adjusting your thinking to embrace medicines that may be similar to those in American hospitals but with different branding, dosage levels, and packaging is also key.

Being able to communicate with people from very different cultures and understanding cultural biases are as important as having strong medical training, Averill says. It’s important to have frequent conversations with patients to understand cultural biases and figure out how to work around them. One strategy is to make sure you and your translator are “on the same page,” suggests Averill.

Ford had little experience in obstetrics before traveling with MTI to the Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda last year. The local midwives were eager to see how a “muzungu,” or white person, delivered a refugee woman’s baby. So with no IV, no monitors and no electricity, Ford stepped up to the plate and did it. “It was mind-blowing,” she said.

If you are interested in become a nurse like Tissell, Harrison or Ford, we support you. And if you´d like some help with the personal statement of purpose required during the admissions process of thousands of institutions around the world, please don´t hesitate to send us an email, and we´ll be at your service as quickly as we can.

What are nursing schools doing to recruit men and minority students into their degree programs? Using a combination of traditional marketing methods, targeted outreach campaigns, and strategic planning, schools are rising to meet the challenge of expanding student diversity and eliminating barriers.