SMU Wins Federal Grant to Boost Nursing Diversity

By: Debra Holtz

Samuel Merritt University (SMU) has been awarded a $1.5 million federal grant to advance its goal of educating a more diverse nursing workforce to reduce health disparities in underserved communities.

The three-year grant will be used to provide scholarships and services to underrepresented students in SMU’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program. It will support 20 African American and 10 Latino students who come from medically underserved areas in Oakland and other East Bay communities. 

The grant is the second received by SMU since 2016 from the Nursing Workforce Diversity (NWD) Program to increase the recruitment, enrollment, retention, and graduation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The program is administered by the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While blacks and Latinos make up nearly a third of the U.S. population, they account for less than 17 percent of registered nurses. Multiple studies have shown that the lack of diversity among healthcare providers negatively affects patient outcomes.

SMU Dean of Nursing Audrey Berman, PhD, said the NWD funds will help relieve the financial strain on students so they can better focus on their studies while also providing them with services such as mentoring, tutoring and counseling. Although no matching funds are required under the NWD grant, SMU is contributing an additional $55,000 each year for nursing diversity scholarships.

“Our nursing programs are rigorous and require significant dedication from our students in terms of time and focus,” said Berman. “Anything we can do to support our students financially and provide resources that help them prosper in their programs is critical to their success.”

That proved true for Mayra Jimenez (BSN ’17), a first-generation college student who was living in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother and sisters while attending SMU. Before receiving the grant, Jimenez worked full-time at Whole Foods Market to make ends meet but found herself falling behind in classes and failing exams.

With the financial assistance and tutoring, she cut down to working one day per week and caught up by devoting more hours to studying without having to take out another student loan. She particularly valued the opportunity to connect with Latino and African American students in group sessions where they shared their personal and educational struggles.

“The NWD grant was an honor to receive,” said Jimenez. “I hope that other minority students receive the opportunity to be blessed with the grant. It definitely relieves a lot of mental and financial stress from life.”

Under the direction of Professor Paulina Van, PhD, SMU initiated its nursing diversity program three years ago. Since receiving the first NWD award of $348,700 in 2016, some initiatives implemented under the grant were replicated across the University. 

SMU established an emergency fund to help NWD recipients who face unplanned expenses during their last semester that could hinder them from graduating. Recognizing that the financial support serves as a lifeline for at-risk students, the University developed a donor-supported Student Emergency Fund that is now available to all students.

“When I think of the various requests for emergency funds my eyes well with tears as many overcame so much adversity to be present on our campus only to have a stolen laptop, broken eyeglasses, or the threat of eviction potentially derail their dreams,” said Ché Abram, SMU’s associate director of diversity and project coordinator for the NWD grants. 

The grant also inspired the creation of a student food pantry on all three SMU campuses to ensure students have access to nourishing food.  Juggling housing costs and educational expenses means many students have little money left over for food, which has become a growing problem on college campuses across the country.

“At the time that we applied for this grant, I did not think that we would be saving and transforming lives, yet that is exactly what we did,” said Abram.



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