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Nurse Profiles

NSNA Committee Targets Nursing Students From Disparate Backgrounds

Breakthrough to Nursing group tackles barriers of all types

By Barry Bottino
rowing up in rural California, nursing student Bree Casas wasn’t able to envision a career in nursing.
“Most people in town didn’t pursue higher education,” she said. “Or if they did, they moved back home quickly after they finished college. I didn’t really have a solid example of someone in my life who pursued health care. I lacked the support system to pursue nursing as my first pathway.”
After several years as a special education teacher, Casas changed direction. Now a senior at San Jose State University, Casas will graduate this year with a BSN, a strong desire to work with children as a pediatric or neonatal critical care nurse, and a new view of how others like her can become nurses.
“Even though it’s taken me a little bit longer, I’m proud of the path I’ve created for myself,” she said.
Part of that path has included finding common bonds with other students as part of the National Student Nurses’ Association’s Breakthrough to Nursing (BTN) committee.
Casas serves as a state director for BTN, which has been supported by NSNA since 1965, and is guided by the mission to “increase the number and diversity of students choosing nursing as a career,” according to the association's website.

How BTN Helps

Nursing student Lauren Newhouse, NSNA’s national BTN director, is a senior at Georgia State University who will graduate in May and begin her career as an oncology nurse.
She said the committee works to mitigate a multitude of barriers that nursing students may face on their path to a nursing degree. Along with recruiting and retaining minority and underrepresented student populations, BTN helps expand educational and career opportunities for minority students, focuses on building relationships with high school students, offers financial assistance via NSNA Foundation scholarships, and strives to make any path to nursing possible.
“I would see so many students and think, ‘They would be an absolutely incredible nurse.’”
— Lauren Newhouse
“We’re coming from all different backgrounds,” Newhouse said. “My biggest barrier was financial, but there were so many disparities that others were facing (during high school and college), and that made me even more passionate about the issue.
“I would see so many students and think, ‘They would be an absolutely incredible nurse,’” she said.
Newhouse noticed that those same students, however, had to work two jobs to support their families financially or care for their children while going to school at the same time.

Building Goals for Nursing Students

In northern Michigan, about two hours from the state’s upper peninsula, nursing student Elizabeth Hemmes has experienced just how unique a nursing cohort can be.
Hemmes, a junior, is president of the Student Nurses Association at Baker College School of Nursing’s Cadillac, Michigan campus, which includes students who are single mothers, military veterans, and future second-career nurses. Before this stage, however, Hemmes was homeschooled, graduating from high school and navigating college without any experience at age 16.

“We all don’t come from the same background, and we all don’t get to nursing the same way, but we all have the same goal — to become a kind and compassionate nurse,” she said.
Building on those differences, Baker students regularly take part in NSNA’s monthly themed projects, which award $100 to the winning school. These projects highlight topics such as self-care, suicide awareness and prevention, and the unconventional path some students take.
“We all don’t come from the same background, and we all don’t get to nursing the same way, but we all have the same goal — to become a kind and compassionate nurse.”
— Elizabeth Hemmes
The various topics give student nurses a holistic picture of nursing. “BTN is a way to bridge NSNA to the whole profession of nursing,” Newhouse said. “The issues we’re dealing with go beyond the school level.”
Newhouse said the projects showcase students’ creativity and have included infographics, social media campaigns, storytelling, and in-person education events.

Projects Raise Awareness

While the $100 prize is a nice bonus for NSNA chapters, working on the monthly projects provides valuable lessons.
On Baker’s campus, mental health breaks between classes are encouraged, Hemmes said, making the self-care project especially worthwhile.
At San Jose State, Casas said perhaps the most meaningful project she’s been part of is an outreach to local high school students. SJSU nursing students led a menstruation donation drive, providing menstrual products for low-income students at six high schools on San Jose’s east side.
“We were able to get hundreds of menstrual products distributed,” Casas said. “That was amazingly successful. It was important to me because we’re addressing a health need but also a psychosocial need that allowed students to go to school without having to worry about not being able to afford these products. That made me very proud.”
As SJSU’s chapter leadership is transitioning to a new group of students, Casas said feedback from future chapter leaders was overwhelmingly supportive of another donation drive.

BTN’s Lasting Lessons

As NSNA members transition into careers as professional nurses, BTN has left an indelible impression. The skills students have learned will carry forward and benefit their futures.
“I’ve learned how to get people excited and passionate about a cause,” Casas said. “Moving forward, I’d like to see our reach spread further and give students more tools to succeed so they feel almost overwhelmed with resources because there are so many.”
Hemmes said working with BTN “has taught me to be more aware” and to understand other perspectives. “It’s also allowed us to become more team oriented and to have a more holistic view of things,” she said.
Newhouse admits that she initially experienced a lack of confidence as a public speaker, a skill she has worked hard to improve. She hopes that her time leading BTN has encouraged others to seek bigger roles.
“Being in a position of leadership forces you to become more comfortable with yourself,” Newhouse said. “Someone told me the mark of a great leader is the ability to make leaders around you. That really resonates with the BTN committee.”
“How is this going to be successful unless we let it trickle down to our states and our school chapters?” she said. “If we can make successful leaders there, then we would be addressing all the areas we need to address, rather than having one person commanding at the top.”
Barry Bottino is a freelance writer and editor. He has more than 25 years of experience working in publishing, including in the healthcare realm.