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UD's Highmark Diversity Scholars
Jennifer Saylor (second from left), associate dean of faculty and student affairs, stands outside McDowell Hall with UD’s Highmark Diversity Scholars, who are (from left) Jacob Miller, Raven Roberts, Tyler Juhl, Gehad Abdelaal and Jordan Robinson.

Increasing diversity in nursing

Photos by Ashley Barnas

UD’s Highmark Diversity Scholars are empowered to succeed

They have more in common than initially meets the eye.

Jordan Robinson, Tyler Juhl, Gehad Abdelaal, Jacob Miller and Raven Roberts are all Delaware natives who graduated from the University of Delaware in May 2021 with bachelor’s degrees in health science-related professions. But their passion for nursing ultimately brought them together. The now tight-knit cohort is part of UD’s Highmark Diversity Scholars program, an intensive workforce training initiative that aims to diversify healthcare workforce pipelines.

What drew each of them to nursing varies from memories of volunteering, family ties, having surgery, a love of caring for others and waitressing. These are their stories.

Jordan Robinson

Jordan Robinson
Jordan Robinson, accelerated nursing program student and Highmark Diversity Scholar

Jordan Robinson remembered volunteering at the hospital in Maryland, where her mother used to work as a nurse.

“I would listen to her talk to the doctors and patients, and she was so calm and reassuring, and at the same time, knowledgeable and confident,” said Robinson. “My mom has always been a very hard worker; she’s always been a great nurse — she gets no awards or recognition — and I like the stories that she used to come home and tell me about patients and how they treated and solved cases.”

Those moments inspired her, and at 13 years old, Robinson knew she wanted to be a nurse like her mom.

The New Castle native graduated from UD in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and immediately enrolled in the Accelerated Bachelor of Science Nursing program (BSN) within the College of Health Sciences, which graduates students with a bachelor’s in nursing in just 17 months.

“With nursing, I could have the best of both worlds. I could have everything that I saw in my mom and have the medical piece and do psych nursing. I could fuse the two,” she said.

On the first day of orientation during Winter Session, Robinson found out she’d been named a Highmark Scholar.

Highmark Diversity Scholars

In June 2021, UD was awarded a $76,500 grant from the Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Delaware’s BluePrints for the Community, which aims to reduce healthcare disparities in minority populations and address social determinants of health.

Jennifer Saylor, associate dean of faculty and student affairs for the School of Nursing (SON), saw the dire need to create a more diverse healthcare workforce and seized the opportunity to accomplish that through Highmark’s BluePrints for the Community, established in 2007. She applied for a grant as part of a rapid workforce training initiative aimed at increasing diversity.

“Most of the nursing students are female Caucasian, and the healthcare workforce must match the population, and it doesn’t in Delaware or the United States,” said Saylor.

Nick Moriello, president of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Delaware called workforce development one of the company’s top priorities.

“BluePrints for the Community is pleased to fund the University of Delaware’s rapid workforce training program for registered nurses, which empowers scholars whose backgrounds are underrepresented in the field of nursing to pursue career opportunities in healthcare,” said Moriello. 

Elizabeth Speakman, senior associate dean for the School of Nursing, said they’re fortunate to receive the funding from Highmark for underserved students.

“This funding is just the beginning at UD SON, our vision to create more learning opportunities for students who best represent the diverse populations of the many wonderful Delawareans we serve,” said Speakman.

Five UD students in the Accelerated BSN program, who are all Delaware natives, were named Highmark Diversity Scholars and provided partial tuition scholarships.

“We wanted to provide support to Delawareans so that they can give back to the state. That’s another problem — Delaware has 800 unfilled nursing positions in the state every year,” said Saylor.

Typically, the only options for students obtaining a second bachelor’s are to use their own funds or obtain loans, often on top of existing loans.

“This scholarship really allows them to stay in the nursing program and not have to work. Many of our students will start the program, and they end up working a lot and then must stop their education, so we’re unable to increase the nursing workforce because of financial reasons,” Saylor said.

For Robinson, who’s African American, being named a Highmark Diversity Scholar eased the financial burden that comes with going back to school for a second degree.

"Even though I’m a daughter to a single mom, my mother has never struggled financially, and of course it’s always best to save money,” said Robinson. “I want her to be able to save for her life. She’s been paying for my college, so I want her to be able to retire. She works so hard, she deserves everything, so I feel like it definitely helps in taking the financial burden.”

And being a minority in the field of healthcare only fuels Robinson’s passion.

“I want to be someone who can help interrupt healthcare disparities in as big a way as I can being one person,” said Robinson.

But what makes this program even stronger is the mentorship that comes with it. Saylor said Highmark Scholars will be matched with a practicing clinician and a minority faculty member.

“When individuals seek out a mentor, typically, you find somebody that looks like you,” said Saylor. “And it’s really hard in school to be different. So, part of this grant is providing them mentorship with a clinician, based on their interests, and a minority faculty member.”

Robinson called that an awesome bonus.

“I wasn’t expecting it, so I think it’s interesting to get to know nurses who work in different specialties to see what their experiences are like; I think that can also help me make my choice because I’m not sure what specialty I’m interested in yet,” said Robinson. “It feels like you have the extra support, extra resources, and I think it exposes you to more, which I’m really grateful for.”

Each scholar will also receive individualized attention.

“In the School of Nursing, our minority underrepresented students typically don’t seek help — and that’s also what I’m hearing University-wide — they don’t seek help until it’s too late. Now, they don’t have to seek help. We reach out them pro-actively,” said Saylor.

Raven Roberts

Raven Roberts
Raven Roberts, accelerated nursing program student and Highmark Diversity Scholar

Raven Roberts of Dover comes from a family of strong Black nurses. Her great grandmothers and grandma are nurses, and her sister is also studying at UD to become a nurse.

Their dedication in high-stress situations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic inspired Roberts to switch career paths.

“There aren’t that many minorities in nursing that can attest to how people feel, so I want to change that,” said Roberts.

She was a junior studying sports health for her undergraduate degree, and since she’d come that far, she decided to finish that program before going back to school for the Accelerated BSN program. She’d then learned she was selected to be a Highmark Diversity Scholar.

“Without this program, my life would be semi-normal. I feel as a minority you’re able to navigate through anything,” said Roberts. “But it’s great that I have the Highmark Scholar program because now I feel like I have the tools and resources to definitely help me so that I don’t fail in any aspect.”

But Roberts admitted the scholarship helped enable her to go back to school.

“It would have been a struggle, financially, otherwise,” she said.

Roberts hopes to do her preceptorship in labor and delivery and wants to work in the maternity unit at a hospital after graduation in May 2022.

“Being able to help somebody bring a new life into the world would be such an amazing thing,” she said. 

Tyler Juhl

Tyler Juhl
Tyler Juhl, accelerated nursing program student and Highmark Diversity Scholar

Walking through McDowell Hall, which is home to UD’s nursing program, Tyler Juhl rarely sees men. 

“Males in nursing are considered a minority,” said Saylor, who wanted to ensure men were well-represented as Highmark Scholars.

He’s one of two Caucasian men in the Highmark Diversity Scholars program now. Men make up just 7% of UD students majoring in nursing. The University currently has no men on its nursing faculty.

According to 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 12% of all registered nurses in the U.S. are men. That’s up dramatically from just under 3% in 1970.

“Men are underrepresented in nursing,” he said. “When people think of minority groups, they don’t think usually of white men, so I think that going into a field and getting more men into nursing is important.”

Juhl of Newark studied health behavior science at UD as an undergraduate, but realized along the way that he wanted to be a nurse.

“I couldn’t do nursing because I played baseball at Delaware, so with clinicals and baseball, it just would have never worked out,” he said.

Having shoulder surgery while he was a sophomore at UD ended up inspiring his career choice.

“I’ve seen how nurses can directly impact not just the patient but the family. So, I think being there and being that person for someone in their family is important,” said Juhl.

So far, Juhl and the other scholars have helped foster a love of nursing in middle school students in the Brandywine School District through the Brandywine Lifesavers program. During their first visit to SON’s state-of-the-art simulation labs, students learned about hospital safety and how to check vital signs. None of the Highmark Diversity Scholars said they had any opportunity like this in their middle schools.

“I didn’t really know I wanted to be a nurse until sophomore or junior year of college, so that’s pretty late. I think giving them that exposure and helping them get on the right course really helps,” said Juhl.

He ultimately wants to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist in the intensive care unit.

Jacob Miller

Jacob Miller
Jacob Miller, accelerated nursing program student and Highmark Diversity Scholar

Jacob Miller of Bear always thought he wanted to be a doctor. But the more he learned about the profession, while studying medical diagnostics for his undergraduate degree, he realized he wanted more patient interaction. Miller finds more personal fulfillment in getting to know people.

“Being a doctor is not as hands-on as I would like. In nursing, you’re very hands-on and patient oriented. I want to be more interactive and get to know my patients,” said Miller.

During his junior year, he returned from a nursing study abroad program in Australia and planned to apply for the Accelerated BSN program. Being named a Highmark Diversity Scholar only made the opportunity to further his studies more possible so he wouldn’t have loans on top of loans.

“I hope to learn a lot more about critical care, like ICU and emergency room aspects of healthcare,” he said.

Miller just started his clinical at Cokesbury Village, an assisted living facility in Hockessin, after spring break. But already, he said, the scholars have completed several simulations including LGBTQ, disabilities, and home assessments. From those experiences, Miller learned more about the importance of recognizing potential bias and looking beyond it.

“Never expect something or give a prejudice to a patient just because of race, ethnicity, sexuality or how they identify themselves because that just puts them into a dim light of who they are, and they have many situations underneath them, and that they as a person deserve your respect first. That can help you treat them better, so they have a better health diagnosis.”

Miller, like Juhl, joined the Men in Nursing Club to form a closer bond with others like him.

“We do study groups. We have blood drives. We also have a Code Blue simulation that’s for men in nursing; we have an intubation simulation, and we also have multiple guest speakers come speak to us,” he said.

Upon graduation, he hopes to stay in Delaware and work in a pediatric ICU.

Miller hopes programs like the Highmark Diversity Scholars encourage more men to become interested in the profession.

“Without that diversity, you can’t create that connection with your patient…you might have gone through a similar situation based on both being men. A female might not know as much about erectile dysfunction as much as another guy.”

Gehad Abdelaal

Gehand Abdelaal
Gehad Abdelaal, accelerated nursing program student and Highmark Diversity Scholar

Gehad Abdelaal, who’s Egyptian, was working at Metro Diner near Christiana Hospital when her interest in nursing was piqued. At the time, she was studying biology as an undergrad at UD.

“We get a lot of nurses who come to eat breakfast or lunch, and we’ll have conversations about their careers and the things they encounter in the hospital, and to me, it was really intriguing,” said Abdelaal.

She, like Miller, thought she wanted to go to medical school but ended up pivoting to nursing.

“The pandemic made me want to be a nurse even more. It made me realize the medical industry is fragile. It needs to be reformed,” she said.

The Newark native applied for UD’s Accelerated BSN program and was accepted.

“I wanted to actually take care of people in an intimate setting,” she said. “In my eyes, nurses are with the patients the longest; they’re the ones getting to know them as a person…you want to find out all the details of their life. How is their home life? How is their family life? All of that can affect their health.”

She learned after she enrolled that she’d been selected as a Highmark Diversity Scholar. As a student with undergraduate loans, she called it a “burden relieved.”

“It’s been super helpful. Throughout my undergrad, I paid for everything for my education. I had a part-time job through all of that. I still have a part-time job now, but it definitely helps,” said Abdelaal.

Abdelaal is grateful to see UD focus on ensuring it’s promoting a more diverse workforce through this program and other endeavors. While that focus didn’t draw her to the Highmark Scholars program, she hopes it inspires others to think the way she’s always thought.

“As a minority, I’ve gotten used to the fact that I might be a minority in places that I go. I didn’t want something like that to stop me from what I wanted to do with my career for the rest of my life.”

She’s also thankful to have formed a strong bond with her fellow Highmark scholars in a short time.

“We’re all going through this high-stress education together...since our schedule is condensed into a year and a half. I think it helps us get through the program knowing we’re all doing it together,” said Abdelaal.

Teaching vital skills to middle schoolers
Highmark Diversity Scholar and accelerated nursing student Jacob Miller teaches vital skills to middle schoolers in the Brandywine School District as part of the BSD Lifesavers program.

A more inclusive School of Nursing

Saylor has high hopes for the current Highmark Diversity Scholars and wants to see the grant program continue and expand in future years. 

“I want to inspire them to pay it forward and find others just like them to come to the University of Delaware School of Nursing, and they could become mentors as part of the program,” said Saylor.

UD’s nursing program is also continuously evolving to meet the changing needs of the community, said Saylor.

“The new essentials are changing for nursing, and it’s never changed since the history of nursing began. And part of the new essentials is cultural competency — this is threaded throughout the nursing curriculum. As part of Introduction to Population Health, we have speakers that come in to talk about all different types of populations, including the LGBTQ+ population, poverty, and those experiencing homelessness,” said Saylor. “These are the people and populations nursing students need to learn to care for. But we’re not doing enough to increase diversity in nursing.

The Highmark Diversity Scholars program is just one piece of the extensive work that’s underway.

SON also wants to see more students from Kent and Sussex counties apply to its nursing program. Thirty-six percent of SON students are from Delaware; it’s unclear how many of them are from downstate.

“I want them to know we look at Delawareans differently for admission. We want you to come here. We’re trying to have more clinical rotations at Bayhealth and Beebe,” said Saylor. “We need their expertise and culture here in Newark so that they can help educate the people here.”

As the healthcare system continues to suffer from burnout, many in the state are offering incentives to UD graduates to join the workforce.

SON is also starting a Black Honors Society and is hosting continuing conversations with minority nursing students to hear ways in which the SON program can be improved.

“We’re trying to create this warm environment that all students can thrive in,” Saylor said. “How can we as faculty provide an inclusive learning environment for you?”

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