Maria Gabriela DeOliveira was thrilled to be accepted into the Connell School’s undergraduate nursing program. It had been her top choice. But DeOliveira, who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts, was worried about making connections with fellow students and faculty, as she had in high school. “I really wanted to find a place where I belonged and that would provide support through my first year,” she said.

Gabby DeOliveira

Gabby DeOliveira

So after learning about the Seacole Scholars program, a new intentional living and learning community for select first-year nursing students, DeOliveira, who is known as Gabby, was intrigued—with reason, it turns out. “Seacole Scholars has definitely helped me find a solid group of friends that I go to class with and collaborate with outside of class,” she said in January. “As students of color, we have similar experiences, so we can really connect.”

Launched at the start of the current academic year, the program is exploring whether living, studying, and working together as a small group will increase a sense of belonging among students of diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds—and help them transition smoothly to college life. Connell School leaders hope the community support, coupled with academic skill building, mentoring, and access to campus resources, will help students thrive during their challenging first year, positioning them for future success.

“There’s a lot of research showing that students with a greater sense of belonging have a greater chance of graduating college and [that it] even has a positive impact on their well-being,” says Julianna González-McLean, assistant dean of Student Services, Diversity, and Inclusion, who developed Seacole Scholars with Colleen Simonelli, associate dean for Undergraduate Programs and a clinical professor.

Julianna González-McLean

Julianna González-McLean

Colleen Simonelli

Colleen Simonelli

Open to students of color, first-generation college students, and participants in the Montserrat Program (for students with the greatest financial need), Seacole Scholars reflects the school’s long-term goal of increasing diversity and inclusion, both at Connell and in the nursing profession (see sidebar). The program is one of BC’s first research projects deliberately rooted in formative education, a Jesuit, Catholic approach that emphasizes examination of one’s intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, and spiritual development.

Conversations and emails with the seven inaugural Seacole Scholars this winter and spring—before and after the COVID-19 pandemic sent students home to finish the semester remotely—suggest the program has exceeded expectations. It provides a nurturing community of friends and faculty to rely on—whether in person or online.

“During this anxious time, Seacole Scholars has been very beneficial for me,” Boston resident Sabrina Ng wrote in early April. “I can relax and talk about my academics or life at home with a group of people who can relate.” Karen Aldana, of Everett, Massachusetts, added, “If anything, my feelings about the program are even more positive [since going home].”

Sabrina Ng

Sabrina Ng

Karen Aldana

Karen Aldana

Advancing diversity at Connell and beyond

The Seacole Scholars program is one of a number of efforts made under Dean Susan Gennaro’s leadership to expand and support a diverse and culturally sensitive faculty, staff, and student body at Connell. Individuals of African, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American (AHANA) descent, after all, represent nearly 40 percent (171 of 436) of nursing undergraduates this year.

Leaders hope these efforts will help diversify the nursing profession (still predominantly white and female) and deepen nurses’ understanding of racial, ethnic, cultural, and other differences. Both are critical for communicating with colleagues and providing the best possible care to an increasingly multicultural patient population.

Meaningful gatherings

Seacole Scholars is one of eight living and learning communities established so far for Boston College students who want to purposefully interact with peers, faculty, and staff with shared interests, such as women’s issues or sustainability. These themed communities—an increasing presence on college campuses seeking to foster learning and bonding—are open to BC undergraduates of all class years.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, BC students moved home and the University switched to remote learning in mid-March, but—before then—the Seacole Scholars, like many first-year students, lived in residence halls on BC’s Newton Campus. There, they had non-Seacole roommates, but spent a lot of time together. Every other week, the group met with González-McLean to discuss what was happening in their academic, social, and family lives and to take time to unwind and reflect. González-McLean’s warm, open approach made them feel welcomed.

Once home, the Seacole Scholars continued to meet regularly, and even held study sessions, using the virtual Zoom platform. They talked about their online classes and ways to stay motivated, and—to lighten the mood—traded funny stories about their families. “Our meetings still bring us positivity in hard times,” noted Grace Neary, who is known as GG, of Waltham, Massachusetts.

GG Neary

GG Neary

Joelle Leong

Joelle Leong

Vidisha Pandey

Vidisha Pandey

One of González-McLean’s goals is to help the students celebrate their various racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. “I emphasize that we are always growing and evolving, and identities change and evolve as well,” she said.

Joelle Leong, of Mount Kisco, New York, said while still on campus, “It’s harder at BC to have conversations [about being students of color] with other people. But this is a small group, and Julianna’s really supportive and listens and shares her advice.” Classmate Vidisha Pandey, of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, recalled coming to BC from a mainly white high school, where she had never talked much with others about race. Being part of Seacole Scholars “has really helped me open up and understand more about who I am and how important my identity is to me as well as learn about the struggles that others face.”

Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole

The extraordinary Mary Seacole

When it came time to choose a namesake for BC’s newest living and learning community, Julianna González-McLean and Colleen Simonelli wanted to recognize an influential but lesser-known nurse. They found her in Mary Seacole (1805–81), an extraordinary Jamaican nurse and businesswoman who practiced her healing skills in the Caribbean, Central America, and Britain.

Turned down when she offered to help Florence Nightingale’s nursing team during the Crimean War against Russia—a rejection she attributed to racial prejudice—Seacole traveled on her own to Crimea, where she set up a “hotel” in 1855 to provide food, supplies, and medicine to sick and injured British soldiers and earned the name Mother Seacole. She published an autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, in 1857.

Seacole was heralded in Europe after the Crimean War but fell into relative obscurity after her death. Her legacy is once again being recognized. She topped the 100 Great Black Britons poll in 2004 and was honored with a statue in London in 2016. Her life story was featured in Marys Seacole, a critically acclaimed play mounted at New York City’s Lincoln Center in 2019.

Joanne Chun

Joanne Chun

The group also shares practical tips, such as how to prepare for tough courses like Anatomy & Physiology 1, and how to find balance. “I’ve been able to slowly build a schedule that helps space out my studying and resting time,” Joanne Chun, of Levittown, New York, said this winter. “This helps calm my stress and be more organized when studying.”

Mentoring is another highlight of the program. Over informal monthly dinners in the fall and early spring, the scholars met campus leaders such as Burt Howell, executive director of Intersections (a program promoting understanding of the University’s Jesuit, Catholic mission), and Akua Sarr, vice provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs. During her visit, Vice President for Student Affairs Joy Moore ’81, Hon. ’10, described how her career has zigzagged as opportunities have arisen. “That was really inspiring,” said Neary. “It taught me to take each moment for what it is, and not worry too much about having the perfect path in your career.”

Burt Howell

Akua Sarr

Akua Sarr

Joy Moore

Joy Moore

Driving forces

Seacole Scholars was established to address concerns, revealed in surveys and conversations in the past few years, that students from diverse backgrounds didn’t feel the same sense of community as their white counterparts—and that pursuing those connections distracted them from their studies. In addition, González-McLean noticed that first-years often struggle to manage their time and workloads, but typically don’t ask for help.

“One of our driving forces was to create that sense of community and share all the supports and resources we offer,” Simonelli explained. They also wanted to augment CSON programs like Keys to Inclusive Leadership in Nursing (KILN), which is geared toward juniors and seniors.

Simonelli and González-McLean worked with BC’s University Residential Life division to recruit and enroll students, a venture they funded in part with a research grant from the Provost’s Office and University Mission and Ministry. Their study will compare the Seacole Scholars’ sense of belonging with that of first-year nursing students not in the program. As they await data assessing the scholars’ inaugural year, González-McLean and Simonelli are also planning for next year—and would like to double the program’s size.

“We hope they are getting a true sense of the Jesuit mission and the difference a Boston College education has to offer,” said Simonelli. She hopes, too, that the students “are being much more reflective and discerning about where they sit in the world and where they want to go, rather than just surviving freshman year.”

Pandemic provides insight

Seacole Scholars say the coronavirus crisis has reminded them of the critical, self less, and sometimes dangerous nature of their chosen profession.

“This pandemic has emphasized how much nurses actually risk their lives on the front line,” said Aldana. “I cannot wait to be making a difference in the world someday, just as they are.”

“I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be a nurse during this pandemic,” DeOliveira reflected. “Their job is to be there for their patients, who are terrified and uncertain of what will happen to them, even though many nurses are probably uncertain themselves. This situation has strengthened my desire to become a nurse. It’s shown me what a virtuous career nursing is and how rewarding it must be.” ▪