At age 7, when other kids were glued to the Disney Channel, Taylor Chau was obsessed with medical documentaries. “I loved watching surgeries,” she recalls. Yet when she decided to enroll at the Solomont School of Nursing, Chau’s decision had as much to do with language and culture as it did with science.
After her grandfather was severely injured in a fall, Chau realized the hospital staff was having trouble communicating with him because he spoke only Cantonese. “My mother and I had to interpret for him,” Chau says. “I chose nursing because I want to help bridge this kind of cultural divide.”
Diomeri Diaz ’21 was on her way to becoming a welder when a similar family experience steered her toward nursing.
“I was in vocational school when my grandmother, who’s originally from the Dominican Republic, had a stroke,” she recalls. For three weeks, Diaz sat in the hospital, watching bilingual nurses carefully tend to her grandmother, conversing with her and other family members in Spanish. “It really woke me up,” she says. “I saw how breaking the language barrier improves health care.”
Jacqueline Dowling, who directed UML’s baccalaureate nursing program for 10 years until her retirement in 2016, couldn’t agree more.
“Nurses who share cultural backgrounds with their patients are more likely to form better connections with them,” she says. “And better connections lead to better health outcomes.”
In 2008, concerned that the nursing workforce was not keeping pace with an increasingly diverse U.S. population, Dowling and other Solomont administrators launched the Bring Diversity to Nursing program. With $3 million in federal and state funding, they partnered with schools in Lowell and Lawrence to recruit more pre-nursing students from diverse backgrounds, and then provided them with the mentoring and financial support they needed to graduate.
By 2015, when the grant funding ended, 50 students from a variety of cultural backgrounds had graduated from UML, and they are now working in local hospitals and clinics.
Dowling considers those results “pretty phenomenal”— and not just for the students. When the program began, she says, “We knew we had to become more culturally competent. But we didn’t realize just how much we would learn from our students.” She recalls how she once spent an hour trying to teach one of her Cambodian American students how to make a hospital bed correctly. “I finally asked her how she made a bed at home, and she explained that they always used pins.” Dowling shakes her head. “How long did it take me to ask that question? That was my first lesson in dealing with cultural differences.
Another lesson learned: how reluctant students can be to ask for help, even in the face of major challenges. Take the student who was evicted from his apartment and slept in his car for two weeks but still kept up with all his studies. “Students here really want their education, and they work so hard to get it,” she says.
“Getting the scholarship really helped lift some of the stress of paying for college,” says Diaz, who has a part-time job at Market Basket and also works as a UMass Lowell resident assistant.
Says Chau, who plans to become an emergency room nurse: “Nurses can be very busy, and sometimes we focus only on the illness. But everyone has a life and a story. I want my patients to feel like someone took the time to listen to them, to make them feel less frightened and alone.”
The need for this kind of care is only accelerating. A recent study by the Boston Foundation found that between 1990 and 2017, every one of the 147 cities and towns in the region saw an increase in the percentage of people of color. More than 90 percent of that growth comes from new immigrants, who, researchers point out, have been central to the region’s strong economy.
“At the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, we provide students with the skills to be health advocates across the spectrum of care, including cultural competence,” says Dean Shortie McKinney. “We want them to appreciate the importance of culture, and be able to help their clients navigate the health care world in a manner that resonates with their culture.”
Dowling is fond of saying that “everyone has a nurse in their lives”—a caregiver who made a big difference at a crucial moment. “If you fully appreciate what nurses do,” she says, “then you understand how important nursing education is. By investing in nursing students who reflect our nation’s demographics, we can help ensure a nursing workforce that better reflects the diversity, and the greatness, of our nation.”