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UMass Lowell Recruiting Minority Nurses

By From the Boston Globe

By Russell Contreras
When Ramona Nuñez became a nurse 12 years ago, she remembers, she was one of just a handful of Latino nurses at her hospital. And at some area hospitals today, Nuñez says, Latino nurses are still rare.

The nursing program at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell hopes to change that.

A group of UMass-Lowell nursing teachers recently were awarded more than $1 million in grant funding to bring a more diverse population to the school's nursing program.

The US Department of Health and Human Services earmarked nearly $900,000 for a three-year program at the school to recruit, retain, and graduate minority and economically disadvantaged nursing students. In addition, the state Department of Public Health gave the school more than $180,000 for a "pro-entry recruitment" plan designed to help diversify the nursing profession.

Karen Devereaux Melillo, chairwoman of the Department of Nursing at UMass-Lowell, said the money will go not only toward attracting Latino, African-American, and Asian-American students to the program, but also to getting them into jobs at area hospitals. This is especially important, she said, given that the nursing workforce is aging, the area is becoming more demographically diverse, and the state is experiencing a nursing shortage.

"The average age of nurses now is around 46 to 48 years old," said Melillo. "And minority [nurses] are very underrepresented, so this is an excellent time to start this. UMass-Lowell is located in an area where we have a large Southeast Asian population in Lowell and a large Latino population in Lawrence. We'll have a large pull."

In the Merrimack Valley, around 17 percent of the area's workforce are foreign-born. That includes Lowell, where about one-third of the population is Latino or Asian-American. In Lawrence, about 70 percent of the city's residents are Latino. The school districts in both cities have enrollments in which students of color are the majority.

Based on those numbers, part of the grant money will be channeled toward getting middle school and high school students from those cities interested in nursing at an early age, said Melillo. Students will be invited to visit UMass-Lowell and will be placed in a setting where they can get a taste of what the career has to offer. They can take part in a six-week workshop in a "human simulation lab" for interactive sessions, she said.

And they will also have a chance to talk to nurses who can share their experiences and serve as role models, said Melillo.

Nuñez, who works at Lawrence General Hospital, said she was looking forward to talking to Latino students about her career and how she ended up in the field, because it's a story she believes they can understand.

Born in the Dominican Republic, the 42-year-old Lawrence resident came to this country 26 years ago knowing very little English. After becoming a licensed practical nurse in 1996, she enrolled in UMass-Lowell's nursing program to get her bachelor's degree and took classes when she could.

"It was intimidating," she said. "But I got through it."

With more students of color in the program, Nuñez said, others will feel that they have a support group.

That's also why Vannary Chhay is getting involved with recruiting more students of color to the program. A recent UMass-Lowell nursing graduate, the 21-year-old is the daughter of Cambodian refugees and speaks Khmer. She has only worked as a nurse for a month at Saints Medical Center in Lowell, and she has already had to speak to patients in the language of her parents.

"Not every patient that comes in looks the same," said Chhay. "We get patients from all over, and the more diverse staff you have, the better service you can provide."

Chhay said so far she's seen only one or two other Asian nurses where she works.

At Lawrence General Hospital, Nuñez said, there is at least one Latino nurse on every floor.

"But we could use more," she said.

Melillo said a selling point for the field is the salary. The starting pay for a registered nurse at a Merrimack Valley hospital is around $52,000 a year, she said, which could be attractive to students from poor families.

"This is all about helping people," she said. "Nursing can change lives."