Nursing in the 21st Century

A conversation with the new president of the Illinois American Nurses Association

2019 was a watershed year for Assistant Professor of Nursing Elizabeth Aquino (CSH MS ’06). In July, she became the associate director of the School of Nursing’s Master’s Entry to Nursing Practice (MENP) program. In November, she was inducted as the new president of the Illinois American Nurses Association (ANA), representing 190,000 registered nurses in the state. DePaul Magazine spoke with her about the state of nursing and nurse education today.

What are some of the top-of-mind issues facing nursing and nurse education?

Th e nursing shortage has been an issue for quite some time. It’s estimated that nearly a quarter of the 4 million nurses in the United States will retire in the next 10 to 15 years. Those nurses work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, academia and the community, and it will take more time and eff ort to address the issues causing the shortage.

Nurse burnout contributes to turnover. Inadequate staffing and workplace violence are very serious issues that hospital environments must address to help alleviate nurse burnout.

A nursing faculty shortage is another major factor to the nursing shortage. Often, nurses do not go into academia for various reasons, including better compensation outside of academic settings or a preference for clinical practice. More recruitment and retention of nurse faculty should be a priority for schools and colleges of nursing. Academic settings need to be able to provide nursing faculty the support necessary to ensure the highest quality education for their students who will one day be responsible for saving and caring for us.

At DePaul, many of our faculty are graduates of our nursing programs. I graduated from the MENP program, and having that experience has really helped me as an educator and in making decisions as the associate director of the MENP program. In my new role, I have focused on providing more resources and training to better support adjunct faculty in their educator roles. I also strive to ensure students, faculty and staff feel that the environment is supportive, engaging and inclusive.

Are there other challenges facing nursing?

Another issue in nursing is a lack of diversity. Despite the growing Latinx population in the United States, Latinx registered nurses represent less than 5% of the nursing population. I have personally done a lot of work to increase the pipeline of Latinx nurses. As the president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses–Illinois, I created a prenursing committee that focuses on educating predominantly Latinx high school and grade school students on the nursing profession. I also helped create a mentorship program for nursing students and nurses. A lack of diversity among nursing faculty and in leadership positions is also a challenge that must be prioritized by institutions.

How are you addressing the pipeline into the nursing program?

Raising early awareness about nursing as a professional career option and nursing school application requirements is vital to increasing the pipeline. Oftentimes, people first learn about the important role nurses play when they or someone close to them is hospitalized. But we need to focus on educating high school and grade school students about why they should consider a career in nursing and how to prepare themselves to apply to nursing school.

“We need to focus on educating high school and grade school students about why they should consider a career in nursing.”

Once accepted, nursing students need to be prepared for the rigor of a nursing program. At DePaul, we have many resources to make sure our students can successfully complete the program. We now have presentations at student orientation that include how to survive nursing school and test-taking strategies so that our students have tools even before the first day of class that will help set them up for success. Additionally, we have success coaching by faculty, peer tutoring, and simulation and open labs to further support learning.

DePaul’s School of Nursing was innovative in creating the first MENP program in Illinois, and it serves as a pipeline for many career-changers. The School of Nursing supports advanced graduate degrees for nurses that are helping to increase the pipeline of highly trained advanced practice nurses to fill the demand in primary practice and specialty areas.

Are you seeing any gender shifts in nursing?

Definitely. While men are considered an underrepresented group in nursing, more men are realizing that nursing is a really great profession, that you have job security and many different opportunities. DePaul has had men in nursing leadership positions, including a past director of the School of Nursing, and we have two men in co-director positions for the Doctor of Nursing Practice program. So, our male students have examples of men in nursing leadership positions.

How did you react to the Chicago Teachers Union’s demand for a nurse in every school during their 2019 strike against Chicago Public Schools?

I was proud of the teachers for advocating for their students’ access to health care in schools. My first questions were, “Are we ready? Do we have enough school nurses to work in every school? And if not, what can we do to meet the demand?” I was happy to hear that DePaul now has a school nurse certification program, a collaboration between the School of Nursing and the College of Education. This new program will help increase the pipeline of certified school nurses.

It is generally recognized that nurse retention is a problem.

Despite the many rewards of being a nurse, nursing can be both mentally and physically demanding. Nurses will burn out if they are working in stressful environments where they are mistreated, understaffed and underresourced. Hospitals must carefully assess how they can create better working conditions that are more inclusive and supportive of all health care providers.

The ANA is heavily involved in making sure that nurses are speaking up on important issues like inadequate staffing and violence in the workplace, increasing the number of nurse faculty and advocating for legislation that advances the nursing profession. Nurses are encouraged to advocate on issues that directly affect the future of nursing and the health of our nation. I believe that when nurses get involved in policy and advocacy work, serve on boards and are in decision-making positions, they bring a wealth of knowledge, firsthand experience and valuable holistic perspectives that can advance an organization and agenda in ways that others cannot.

What does 2020 hold in store for you personally?

2019 was an incredible year for my professional growth, and I plan to continue to work hard to make an impact in others’ lives in as many ways possible. I am particularly looking forward to the global celebration of 2020: Year of the Nurse and Midwife!

The School of Nursing Pitches In

DePaul’s Elizabeth Aquino, left, delivers unused medical supplies to Sinai System and Norwegian American Hospital.

A national shortage of medical supplies has left frontline health care providers at risk of contracting COVID-19 from the patients in their care. DePaul’s School of Nursing saw a need they could help fill. Nursing faculty members Elizabeth Aquino, Karlis Butler, Susan Dawson and Desma Mitchell teamed up to box unused personal protective equipment from the school’s nursing simulation lab for distribution to local hospitals.

For Aquino, this action was a deeply personal one. “My heart breaks when I listen to nurses and doctors share their experiences and fear of risking their family’s lives because they don’t have the proper protection. Yet, they still go back to the hospital because their patients depend on the care they provide for them,” she said.

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