This fall, high school students in the Washington, D.C. area will have a unique opportunity to get a close-up view of what it takes to become a nurse, thanks to the Investment in Nursing Project, a collaboration between the District’s student nursing association and its professional counterpart, the District of Columbia Nurses’ Association (DCNA).
Male and female students from all D.C. high schools—and particularly those with large percentages of racial and ethnic minority students—have been invited to attend the two associations’ first joint conference on October 10-11 at the University of the District of Columbia. But the teens won’t be sitting in an auditorium listening to the usual recruitment pitches about why they should consider nursing careers. Instead, each will be paired with a student nurse for the day.
“It’s like having a big sister or big brother for the day,” says David McAllister, RN, president of the District of Columbia Student Nurses’ Association (DCSNA), whose membership is comprised of students at the District’s four nursing schools. Two of the schools—Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia—are historically black universities; the other two—Georgetown University and the Catholic University of America—are majority institutions.
By giving high school students the hands-on opportunity to actually shadow student nurses, McAllister and his cohorts are hoping to take the standard “Be a Nurse” recruiting message one step further. “This way, the students can see what it takes to be a nurse and what the options are,” he says. “They need to know it’s very hard but the rewards are amazing.”
The teens will be attending the conference at no charge, except for a minimal fee to cover the cost of their lunch. McAllister has lined up donors, though, for students who are unable to pay. The high schoolers will also receive attractive “goody bags” filled with plenty of take-home information about nursing education and nursing careers.
The Investment in Nursing Project was launched earlier this year as a way to try to do something about the severe nursing shortage in the nation’s capital. McAllister and his fellow student nurses decided to reach out to high school students after conducting a needs assessment in 2002 and doing research on the success rate of prior recruiting campaigns. That assessment revealed an information gap, says McAllister. Despite the many nursing recruitment campaigns that were under way last year, the young people being targeted still didn’t have the facts they needed to start pursuing a nursing career.
“We felt the previous campaigns had failed because they were telling people to ‘be a nurse’ without telling them how to be a nurse,” McAllister explains.
Instead of just focusing on the reasons why nursing is a great career choice, Investment in Nursing wants to provide concrete information about all the various routes young people can take to become a nurse, starting with the first step of preparing to become a nursing student. That means letting high school students know all the different options available to them, says McAllister. For example, instead of limiting themselves to the four BSN degree programs in the District, DCSNA is also planning to distribute information about LPN and associate’s degree programs.
The group also wants to make sure young people know about all the different career paths they can follow after they graduate from nursing school. “If someone wants to go into nursing just so they can work a three-day week, that’s okay,” says McAllister. “But we also want to them to know they can go into administration, too.”
The conference invitations were sent out at the beginning of the school year, first focusing on students in allied health clubs at area high schools. The invitations were followed by in-person visits from McAllister and other student nurses. DCSNA has also put a post-conference follow-up plan in place to make sure nursing schools have a means to stay in touch with the high school students after this initial introduction to nursing.
McAllister and his colleagues hope the end result of their efforts will be a racially, culturally and gender-diverse group of high school students who are not only interested in nursing as a career but are also armed with the information they need to make the academic choices that will lead them into nursing school.
McAllister’s counterpart at the D.C. Nurses’ Association, president Sharon Payne, RN, agrees with his theory that one-on-one intervention is key to persuading young people to consider nursing careers.
“It all boils down to just being involved in our own community here in D.C.,” she says. “Advertisements are effective, but we need a one-on-one approach. I really do think that going into schools and talking to people one-on-one as much as possible works. That starts people thinking about nursing as a viable career.”
The outreach to area high school students is only one part of the collaborative Investment in Nursing Project, which was initiated by McAllister as his presidential theme for 2003. The student/professional partnership is also sponsoring or participating in several other events this fall, including a Student Leadership Summit in September, an HIV/AIDS Conference in December and an Investment in Nursing gala in November.
All of these activities, says McAllister, are designed make the image of nursing highly visible and to provide career-building opportunities for nurses at all levels in the District. “The idea of ‘investing in nursing’ grew out of the our decision to first invest in ourselves before asking others to do so,” he emphasizes.
The results of the 2002 needs assessment convinced McAllister that this investment is urgently needed. “One of the things we found out [from researching the effectiveness of previous recruiting campaigns] was that we in nursing were missing a lot of people,” he explains. “We were missing male students, Hispanic students, African- American students, gay and lesbian students.”
McAllister himself is a good example of a nursing student for whom the decision to be a nurse has become an investment in himself. He calls himself a “nontraditional student”—a 35-year-old African-American man who decided to change professions after initially pursuing a career in the business world. After years of working as an LPN, McAllister graduated last summer from the University of the District of Columbia with an associate’s degree in nursing. He returned to the historically black college this fall to continue working toward his BSN degree.
The Investment in Nursing Project is one of the first tangible fruits of a renewed collaborative effort between the professional nursing and student nursing associations within the District of Columbia. Although the two groups had worked together in the past, they hadn’t done so for quite some time. Today, they have found that resuming their partnership is breathing new life into both organizations.
The new collaboration began with a phone call from McAllister to Payne, looking for ways the two groups could network. He attended a few DCNA meetings last fall and soon the associations were planning joint projects.
For Payne, the idea of teaming up with the nursing students seemed only natural. “We’re the people that the students are going to be working with when they graduate,” she says. “We need to get acquainted.”
Even simple collaborative projects like doing blood pressure checks at a health fair provide opportunities for both the student and the experienced nurse, Payne adds. “Our role is to function as professional mentors. We want to be an example for developing leadership.”
Jointly, the two organizations provided health screenings at the U.S. Department of Justice and held a “bear day” at a local children’s hospital, where they distributed stuffed animals and spent time visiting with the young patients.
The next step came when the student association invited the professional nurses to join them at their first conference, which focused on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in the District of Columbia. The highly successful conference, which drew a crowd of 200 attendees, grew out of a DCSNA community health project and the students’ desire to take a different approach to the concept of holding a statewide student nurses’ convention.
“Our association in the District is made up of only four schools, so we can’t always do things like other state groups do,” McAllister explains. “We decided that we were going to do things differently. For us, a house of delegates would mean four people, so [the traditional approach] just didn’t make sense. We decided to make our community health project our conference.”
For nursing students, the benefit of working on collaborative projects with professional nurses is obvious. They get to practice their assessment skills and meet established RNs, many of whom may be able to assist students in finding a job after they graduate. To help prepare the students to become future ANA members, DCNA regularly invites them to observe cabinet meetings and see how the professional organization functions.
But Payne reports that her chapter’s members are benefiting just as much from getting to know the next generation of nurses. “Professional nurses are usually older and we’ve been in this career for a long time,” she says. “Bringing in young people with new ideas and new technology has been great for our organization. Often, when we’re struggling with how to get from point A to point B, a student nurse will come up with a great suggestion.”
Payne cites a joint Web site (www.dcsna.org/project) and an online newsletter as two examples of how her association has gained from involvement with students from the “Internet generation.”
McAllister agrees that the collaboration has been mutually rewarding, bringing both groups increased visibility and more interest from members. “We’re out there,” he says, “and people can see us now.”