Rowena Elliott, Ph.D., R.N., C.N.N., B.C., C.N.E., is one of those people who make it all seem effortless. She balances teaching and mentoring with research projects and speaking engagements. She has a handful of degress and has held the title of "Director of Nursing" at least twice—it's hard to keep track. She also has a collection of faculty, nurse, and student of the year awards from a number of organizations, and she was named a Gates Millennium Scholar in 2000. Add to that dozens of ancillary committees.
Yet, it's her brand-new role as president of the American Nephrology Nurses Association that has people talking. In a time when there seem to be so few "firsts," Elliott is the first African American to hold the position. And for anyone who believes educators are, or should be, community leaders, her life is a case study of both. "She has been so determined in her professional career and volunteer leadership roles, accomplishing so much," says Loretta Jackson Brown, Ph.D.-C., R.N., C.N.N. Brown served on the ANNA Board of Directors with Elliott from 2008–2010, where they together made history as two minorities in leadership roles within the organization. Outside the ANNA, Brown is a clinician health communicator with McKing Consulting and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "She is dedicated to improving the statue of others, to including her nursing students, nephrology nurses, nurses in Mississippi, where she is an active member and leader for Mississippi Nurses Association, and many others.
"Often times people think that a leader of her rank perhaps is unapproachable and not in touch with the real members," Brown says. "Dr. Elliott can often be found mingling with the members. She is inconspicuous and doesn't draw attention to the fact that she is the most powerful person in the room."
Elliott speaks excitedly, quickly, about her life and years leading up to being elected president of the ANNA.
Born and raised in Chicago, Elliott is the second of 10 children, an even split of boys and girls. "I grew up in a household where we didn't have a lot," she says. "We were poor." Elliott says she is fortunate that all of her siblings are still alive, as well as her mother, though her father passed away over a decade ago.
Elliott's parents, who both left high school before their senior year, instilled in their children a reverence for education. They knew it would lead to a better life and exponentially more opportunities. Through education, they could achieve anything. Elliott took their advice to heart, and now holds three degrees and has been teaching since 1998. Married with two children and two grandchildren of her own, Elliott says, "I try to instill the same thing in them."
Elliott graduated from nursing school in 1982. She wanted to become a CRNA immediately, but marriage and children postponed her plans. "Life happens," she says. Fifteen years later, she went back to school for her master's degree.
"I've done a little bit of everything," Elliott says. As clinical nurses often do in small hospitals, "We did it all." Juggling the responsibilities taught her to think on her feet, to move quickly, and to not be afraid.
Eventually, Elliott moved into long-term care, but she says it wasn't her niche. She was looking for new job opportunities when she saw the hemodialysis unit in her hospital needed a director. Elliott applied, even though she couldn't remember much about dialysis from nursing school. "I probably wouldn't even recognize a dialysis machine!" she says with a burst of girlish laughter.
To her surprise, Elliott got the job and had a great teacher to guide her through. She says she learned how to prioritize and do things right the first time. "No shortcuts," she says, suddenly serious. Now she shares the same advice, plus 30 years of lived experience, with her students.
For three or four years, Elliott ran the dialysis unit, and throughout that time, she heard her colleagues say she should become a nurse educator. "I never really thought about being a teacher," Elliott says. "But I thought, ‘I have the gift to do this.'"
In 1998, she started teaching at Alcorn State University School of Nursing in Natchez, Mississippi. She moved on to her alma mater, the University of Mississippi, in 2001. The entrepreneurial bug bit her in 2005, and Elliott started her own legal nurse consultant business, but the novelty of the business side of nursing eventually wore off. "I started missing my calling," she says. She belonged in a classroom. So she took a position at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2008, where she teaches today. Elliott is passionate about guiding and being a role model to others, particularly minority nurses and nephrology nurses. She says it plainly: "I love my students."
As medical director, Elliott required her staff nurses to join the American Nephrology Nurses Association (ANNA), starting a relationship with the organization that has seen her rise through the ranks, from state to regional to national officer and now president.
At one point, Elliott ran for ANNA national secretary, but lost. She says the election taught her a lot, and when she came back stronger and more prepared, she won the position. Six years later, she was elected president, and on March 29, 2011, she was officially sworn in. "My brother actually calls me Dr. Ro-bama," she says, again laughing through her words.
"Rowena is very energetic, outgoing, and stylish," says Sharon Longton, R.N., B.S.N., C.N.N., C.C.T.C., a data manager and transplant coordinator at Harper University Hospital in Detroit. The two met when Elliott joined the ANNA's Board of Directors as National Secretary. "She works tirelessly to achieve her goals and the goals of the organization. Her personality and laughter draw others in and makes them feel like they belong," Longton says. "She always recognizes others for what they do, no matter how small or big their contribution may be.
"I also admire Rowena's style," Longton says. "Ro loves shoes and Paris. It seems as though she has shoes in almost every color and style available. Her love is so significant that if you were to look closely on the cover of ANNA's 2011 Fall Meeting program brochure, you will notice a pair of red high heels near the base of a street lamp. These were included in the picture as a subtle representation of something for Rowena. And what can I say about Paris other than it shows how classy and intelligent Rowena is."
"I get teary," Elliott says, less than a month before the swearing-in ceremony. "When I think about it—" Her voice falters and she stops for a minute.
"I've come from a family where we had nothing to being the first African American president of this organization," she continues.
"I do remember when I was a preteen that I had to sit in the ‘blacks only' section of the local health clinic," Elliott says. "To go from that to being the first African American to lead this organization is surreal but also warms my heart."
Although Elliott celebrates her achievement, she does not dwell on it because it's a part of a greater plan, she says. "I know God wants this position to be an opportunity to let other nurses and nursing students to know that no matter the obstacles and challenges that life brings, your dreams can definitely become realities."
For Elliott, the role is more meaningful because she's showing other minority nurses that they can do it too. "If you see something you want to change, you can change it," she says.
Being the ANNA president was not a lifelong dream for Elliott, she says, but when she saw that Board of Directors, she felt that she just needed to be there. "[They] did not reflect the membership," she says. Elliott remembers looking at the ANNA's Board of Directors and asking the then president, "How do you get up there?"
For Elliott, it's a simple matter of equal representation. "The amount of minorities does not reflect the population that we serve," she says of the ANNA and her specialty. When you look at the patients nephrology nurses serve, they're primarily African Americans who experience grossly disproportionate numbers of hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes, which lead to kidney problems and renal replacement. As ANNA president, Elliott wants to increase the number of all minority nephrology nurses, while boosting the number of nephrology nurses in general. "That's been one of my goals," she says, and she already has experience, having served on recruitment committees as a university faculty member.
"If you want to make a change, don't complain about it—take the steps," Elliott says. "Make the change that you're trying to see."
Recruiting is about creating awareness and highlighting the benefits of this niche nursing specialty to make it an appealing path for future generations of nurses, Elliott says. Part of the effort is advocacy and speaking out. Let people know you're there. Elliott presents at symposiums and writes about the subject at length, detailing solutions for recruitment. She recently spoke at a National Student Nurses Association event to discuss nephrology as a career path. "A lot of them didn't even realize it was an option," she says.
Elliott says she sees a lot of nursing students go into the ICU, women's health, and emergency nursing—the well known specialties shown, and often idealized, on television and in movies. Nephrology needs to take a similar tact, Elliott says, but because getting it into the movies may be a challenge, it's up to the nurses. "Our specialty is a great specialty. It's very rewarding and exciting," she says. "We need to make sure our name is out there."
Elliott, or "Dr. E." as she's known at school, estimates two or three of her students go into nephrology nursing every year. The students tell her they chose the specialty because of the passion she expresses for it in her teaching.
"Her dynamic personality allows her to [be] interactive with individuals across all racial and ethnic groups," Brown says. "She is infectious in her presentation and you truly are motivated to go out and accomplish more once you hear her speak...She truly epitomizes leadership excellence and encourages the hearts of others."
Elliott hopes history will remember her for her leadership, not just as the first black ANNA president. "It's truly an honor. I don't have the words to express it," she says. "But I'm ready for the work."
Elliott credits her parents for always encouraging her to do better, to be better. "I know I'm making history," she says. "I'm proud."
"She is just what ANNA needs at this time," says Donna Painter, M.S., R.N., C.N.N., the exiting ANNA President. "I know that ANNA will thrive."
Always the teacher, Elliott hopes the next generation of nurses can learn from her nearly three decades in the profession. "Don't settle," she advises. "Don't settle for anything in your personal life. Don't settle for anything in your professional life." If you dream about being a nurse educator, press forward until you become a nurse educator. "Stay focused on your goals and make the sacrifices," she says. "Keep your eyes on the prize."
And that never goes out of fashion.