Catholic nursing schools preparing future nurses to advocate for good

March 15, 2022

Curriculum covers racial justice, health equity, care of vulnerable


There's a growing recognition in the health care sector that nurses must be adept not just at delivering high-quality clinical care but also at advocating for change. This includes advancements around racial justice, health equity and root causes of illness.

Nursing students Deanna Ibrahim, left, and Tina Davis simulate a patient visit as part of family practice coursework at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Catholic nursing schools have been enhancing their programming and curriculum to ensure they are preparing students for this work.

Administrators say their schools long have pursued social justice aims. And as the nation has turned its attention to racial justice and socioeconomic disparities in recent years, they've been reassessing how their schools are taking on these issues.


Marcia R. Gardner is dean of the Barbara H. Hagan School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Molloy College, a Catholic school in Rockville Centre, New York. She says, "We want to give students the opportunity to address social determinants of health. And we want to ensure our curriculum is preparing them to be health equity advocates and to take action to address health inequities and to understand underlying structural issues that affect health care."

She says nurses "are a powerful voice to help people in need."

'Future of Nursing'
The movement toward expanded roles for nurses was detailed in "The Future of Nursing 2020 – 2030: Charting a Path to Achieve Health Equity," a study released in May 2021 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

A Duquesne University's nursing school faculty member monitors the way nursing students respond to the mock cardiac arrest of a medical manikin. During the early days of the pandemic, when it was more difficult for nursing students to do clinical rotations in health care facilities, the school increased its use of simulations in clinical training.

An overview says the report is "aimed at envisioning and charting a path forward for the nursing profession to help reduce inequities in people's ability to achieve their full health potential."

"By leveraging (nurses' capacity and expertise), nursing will help to create and contribute comprehensively to equitable public health and health care systems that are designed to work for everyone," the overview says.

Grounded in mission
Catholic nursing school leaders say those goals are aligned with the charisms and missions of their schools.


Amy M. Hall is professor and dean of the school of nursing at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, part of Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System. The school and health system carry the name of the order of women religious who founded and sponsor the institutions. Hall says the mission the sisters set out for the nursing school requires it to groom students to be servant leaders.


At Molloy College's nursing school, the focus is on graduating nurses ready to demonstrate love of neighbor through service to patients and the community, says Catherine Tully Muscente, vice president of the college's office of mission and ministry. Community, service, study and prayer are the pillars of the Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Cross Amityville, which founded the college and the nursing school.

Mary Ellen Smith Glasgow is dean of Pittsburgh's Duquesne University School of Nursing and vice provost for research and the office of research and innovation for the university. She explains that Duquesne University's identity is a modern expression of the Spiritan tradition of its founders, the Fathers of the Holy Spirit.


"We believe in building community, having a global vision, promoting academic excellence, and fostering a general commitment to service," she says, adding that all Duquesne students learn to apply the Spiritan principles of justice, peace and the integrity of creation in their personal and professional lives.

The deans say ensuring racial, ethnic and thought diversity is a top priority of their campuses. They are working to increase the diversity of their nursing school faculty and student populations.

Hall says it is essential to Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University that faculty and student makeup reflects the broader Baton Rouge community, which she says is very diverse, and that students see faculty who look like them.

Nursing students assist with on-campus COVID-19 testing at Duquesne University in October 2020.

Glasgow says Duquesne's nursing school connects prospective students who are from a minority population with current students of the same ethnic or racial background to deepen a sense of community among them. The nursing school also holds in-person and online student recruitment events to attract the attention of more people of color.

To foster a culture where everyone feels welcome, the nursing school has hosted a diversity in nursing movie night and staff development sessions on social justice topics including the racial divide and gender expansive youth.

Broad experience
Gardner, Glasgow and Hall all say their respective nursing schools continually evaluate curriculum for relevance to many different populations, including racial and ethnic minorities. And they make sure that curriculum addresses the perspectives of these diverse populations. Students get exposed to many different patient populations — and particularly vulnerable populations — in their clinical training and volunteer experiences.

Glasgow says Duquesne faculty and students have vaccinated people in Pittsburgh group homes and senior living residences, and administered COVID-19 tests. Duquesne faculty and students also staffed vaccination clinics in Pittsburgh's Hill District, a historically Black community. And faculty, alumni and graduate students provide health care services on an ongoing basis as volunteers at a health care clinic for those who are poor.

The nursing school is starting a fellowship for undergraduate nursing students, to teach them to understand and address systemic inequities that contribute to poorer health outcomes for Black mothers and their babies. Participants will learn to promote health equity and collaborate with community stakeholders. They will tune in to how cultural differences in communication styles can affect care. They'll be taught to listen attentively and communicate effectively and compassionately with mothers of color, who may feel dismissed or manipulated by the medical system.

Sr. Donley

Sr. Rosemary Donley, SC, the Jacques Laval Chair for Justice for Vulnerable Populations at Duquesne school of nursing, is charged with organizing community service projects for the nursing school students to increase health care access for vulnerable populations. Sr. Donley also furthers research related to health care access and quality including through an annual symposium for practicing and student nurses on social justice issues in health care.

Cross-culture training
Hall says Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University has a course that challenges nursing students to look beyond the immediate medical conditions of patients to the social determinants of health impacting those patients' health. Additionally, every nursing student does clinical rotations in facilities that treat a diverse population of people who may struggle to access health care, due to socioeconomic barriers. This can include federally qualified health centers and rural clinics.

Gardner says Molloy ensures its nursing students do rotations in clinical settings where they interact with people from an array of cultures and races. Here too, students get experience assessing patients' clinical and socioeconomic needs.

Many faculty and students volunteer to staff a mobile van that provides care to people without a medical home. They see firsthand the barriers some of the most vulnerable community members face in attempting to access health care services and they learn to recognize and help to address those barriers, including by referring patients to social service providers.

Gardner says the goal of nursing education at Catholic schools is to form future nurses who are equipped to advocate for people so they can improve their lives. "We help (students) understand they can improve the system. They can look beyond themselves and be good servant leaders and translate the skills they have in order to make a difference for others."

She says this perspective "is why I love working in a Catholic college. It's about taking the opportunities we have and paying it forward."

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