Growing up in Brooklyn, Jimmy Yang ’17 was riveted in his high school biology classes. But he had never considered nursing until shortly before he was due to arrive on campus as a freshman in 2013. A first-generation college student whose parents emigrated from China, Yang got an e-mail from the Connell School of Nursing inviting him to apply to KILN (Keys to Inclusive Leadership in Nursing). The five-year-old program recruits and prepares students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in nursing to succeed academically and in their profession.

“Coming into school, my first few days were a little awkward, a little intimidating,” says Yang. “Now it just feels normal.” With help from his mentor, Richard Ross, S.J., a clinical instructor in the nursing school, and support from KILN, Yang says he enjoyed a successful freshman year.

Undergraduates who look like Yang and male faculty were anomalies at the Connell School until recently. So were graduate students such as Deborah Washington, M.S. ’93, Ph.D. ’12, now the director of diversity for Patient Care Services at Massachusetts General Hospital, who is black. While Washington was pursuing her degree during the 1990s, she recalls, she never saw “a classmate who looked like me.”

Yang, Washington, and Ross represent the new face of nursing at the Connell School—and an essential evolution in the future of health care, according to Catherine Y. Read, an associate professor and KILN’s director, who recently left the role of associate dean for undergraduate programs after nine years.

“Health care is never going to be fixed until we have a nursing workforce that complements the diversity of the community,” she says. For that to happen, rigorous undergraduate nursing programs such as the Connell School’s have to become more diverse.

“When I first started on the job as associate dean, I saw a lot of students not reaching their potential,” says Read. Students, including males, would leave the Connell School or wouldn’t achieve what they could. “They didn’t see themselves as leaders,” she continues. “We wanted to scout the kids that may or may not have gotten through the [undergraduate nursing program].”

To that end, Read spearheaded the Connell School’s effort to secure federal funds to launch KILN as a three-year pilot in 2009. At first, KILN focused on undergraduates, recruiting top high school students, then mentoring and offering intense tutoring and grants, and providing funds to cover ancillary costs such as conference fees and travel. In 2012, a $540,000 Price Family Foundation grant made it possible for CSON to continue to expand KILN, opening it to 10 graduate students and 40 undergraduates.

"When health care providers see someone who looks like them or comes from a similar background, there is a level of comfort there.”

—Danny Willis, Associate Professor and Chair, Diversity Advisory Board


Nina Wujech (right) and her patient Bette Darling at Tristan Medical, Raynham.

Nina Wujech (right) and her patient Bette Darling at Tristan Medical, Raynham.

The KILN program offers “a forum, a shared culture” for students who might otherwise hesitate to express themselves, says Nina Wujech, a nurse practitioner graduate student in her third year and a native of Cameroon. It also provides resources (grants and stipends, for instance) to help those who otherwise might not be able to afford to pursue professional opportunities to do so. With money from the program, Wujech, for example, was able to attend a conference in Florida, where she made enduring professional contacts who offered a glimpse of real life in the field.

The KILN approach is not necessarily new—scholarships, intervention, and tutoring have been around for many years. KILN’s strength, says Read, is the way it tailors support to each student. “It’s not one size fits all.

Everybody can be successful.” KILN now serves 43 undergraduates and 10 graduate nursing students in a school of 385 undergraduates and 295 master’s degree candidates. In addition, during the past five years, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation New Careers in Nursing program has provided $10,000 scholarships to more than 40 students from underrepresented minority groups and disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds who are accepted to the Connell School’s accelerated master’s in nursing program.

Deborah Washington (center) leads a unit-based training at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Deborah Washington (center) leads a unit-based training at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“There is intention behind the message of diversity and inclusion” at the Connell School, says Washington. The changes come from a more constructive approach than the old quota system of affirmative action, she points out. “Today the admissions people and deans and employers look at diversity around the question `Who is not here?’ Now we ask if we have Muslims and men and someone who is out and comfortable with his orientation.”

The proportion of Connell undergraduates who are AHANA (African, Hispanic, Asian and Native American) doubled to 20 percent since 1994, and reached 25 percent during some of the past five years. The male undergraduate enrollment has increased from three percent in 2004 to more than 11 percent of the incoming class in 2014.

The KILN and the New Careers in Nursing programs complement efforts to diversify the faculty as well.

Danny Willis (right) advises Ji Won Lee ‘15

Danny Willis (right) advises Ji Won Lee ‘15

“There’s this commitment to diversity in the school,” says Associate Professor Danny Willis, department chair and head of CSON’s Diversity Advisory Board. Broadening participation in the faculty also is an ongoing effort, says Willis, one of five males of the 53 full-time faculty members. “Diversity is a value we teach and a major part of what goes on inside the building. It is also congruent with our mission as a Jesuit university.”

The overarching goal of diversity in nursing practice, Washington says, is culturally competent care. It is a practiced skill, she says, that can be taught in a course but goes far beyond bullet points. It is essential to establishing a rapport with the patient in a most intimate relationship. “As a black woman, I’m trying to reach a black patient about diabetic foot care and I can sit down and say ‘I can tell you the way your mama would tell you,’” Washington says. “I get laughter and camaraderie going and he may do this one thing I’m insisting on.”

It’s not possible for each patient to have a nurse from their ethnic or racial background or gender, she says, but students need to put their cultural identity “out front and be a part of who they are and how they interact.”

There will still be patients who refuse nurses from a particular background to be part of their care team, says Washington. Racism and bias are part of our culture and the relationship with a nurse is profoundly intimate, she continues.

Willis says diversity is a thread that runs through the entire curriculum, as faculty members bring up inclusivity in the classroom and encourage research that focuses on health disparities in vulnerable communities and populations.

It also encompasses the way the school encourages students and graduates to take leadership roles to improve public health. Broadening participation in the field is essential to this effort, Willis says. “When health care providers see someone who looks like them or comes from a similar background, there is a level of comfort there. This congruence and match can translate to health care at a higher level.”

Connell is fortunate to have great faculty and students and an administration that leads, Willis adds. But it’s ongoing work. “The goal would be to see everyone as a human being,” he says. 

—Judy Rakowsky, photographs by Caitlin Cunningham