Liz Aquino (CSH MS ’06), the new diversity advocate in the College of Science and Health (CSH), knows firsthand about the challenges that underrepresented faculty and staff face.
“I was the first one [in my family] to graduate from college,” says Aquino, an assistant professor of nursing who grew up in Berwyn, Ill. “I didn’t even really know what a PhD was until I came here for my MENP [Master’s Entry to Nursing Practice], and I had never seen someone who looked like me with a PhD.”
Now Aquino is working to help CSH recruit and retain diverse faculty and staff, enabling the college to conduct more insightful research and service in Chicago communities as well as provide role models for students. As part of her personal research, Aquino also is investigating the barriers, such as
inexperience with the nuts and bolts of classroom teaching and limited institutional support, that discourage practicing nurses from becoming faculty members.
“When you have nurses who transition from bedside to faculty, it’s a different world. It can be challenging,” she says. “Beginning any new role and working to advance your career comes with challenges, so it’s important that institutions demonstrate a true commitment to their employees. We need to identify and remove barriers. We need an inclusive environment that is supportive and recognizes people for their unique contributions. We want people to come here and we want them to stay.”
Her first step was to survey existing CSH faculty and staff about the challenges they face. “I want to make sure that I am representing everyone, not just coming in with my own ideas,” she says.
Aquino knows how to represent. She is president of the Illinois chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, which provides mentoring and scholarships to nursing students, offers professional development opportunities for licensed nurses and collaborates with community organizations to conduct health screenings and related services for underserved populations. Under Aquino’s leadership, chapter members participated in three medical mission trips to Puerto Rico following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.
Aquino sits on the national organization’s policy and advocacy committee, staying on top of legislation and regulations that will affect nurses. She also works with the American Nurses Association Illinois, whose activities include an annual conference to educate nurses and nursing students about bills that will affect the profession. She travels with students recruited by the DePaul Student Nurses Association to the annual student nurse political action day in Springfield, Ill. Aquino, who is married to Illinois State Senator Omar Aquino, helps students meet their elected officials so they can gain confidence in voicing their opinions.
Aquino has learned to be confident in her own voice. During the past decade she has served on many national, state and local boards and committees, including the national diversity leadership committee for the American Heart Association.
“I’m bringing them my perspective, being a nurse, being Hispanic, being younger, being a woman,” she says. “It’s important to have that collective voice represented.”