Scholarship program puts career dreams of more diverse nurses in reach

Mayra Arana works part time at Miami’s Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, piloting a newly created role of admission, discharge, and transfer nurse.
By Maya Bell

Mayra Arana works part time at Miami’s Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, piloting a newly created role of admission, discharge, and transfer nurse.

Scholarship program puts career dreams of more diverse nurses in reach

By Maya Bell
The School of Nursing and Health Studies has received renewed federal funding to increase the number of primary care nurse practitioners for minority populations.

Mayra Arana was at work, in her third year as a pediatric nurse, when she received news last summer that sent her bolting from Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in tears. When a concerned security guard followed her outside, she tried to assure him they were tears of joy. 

“I was crying so much I could barely get the words out. The email said I was getting the scholarship for my master’s degree,” recalled Arana, the U.S.-born daughter of Peruvian immigrants who completed her studies in the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies’ one-year Family Nurse Practitioner Program last week. 

“It was such a blessing, a sign I was on the right track,” said Arana, a first-generation college student who earned her bachelor’s in nursing at the University in 2016. “I really wanted to go back to school, to grow, to learn more, to be a leader in health promotion. But I really didn’t want to take out loans.”

Now the school has received its own good news, which will enable more nurses from underprivileged backgrounds to advance their education and diversify the primary care workforce—a field where physician shortages are especially acute, particularly for underserved populations. Last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) renewed the four-year, $2.5 million grant the school received in 2016 to help 84 nursing students from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of them minorities, pay two-thirds of their tuition for the one-year master’s degree programs in either family health or adult-gerontology primary care.

This time, the grant is for $3.25 million and 105 students over five years, which reflects the success of, and need for, the program directed by Johis Ortega, the school’s associate dean for hemispheric and global initiatives. Of the 45 students who graduated during the initial grant’s first two years, 43 were working as APRNs—Advanced Practice Registered Nurses—who can provide culturally sensitive primary care. A year later, well over half were working in primary-care settings and in medically underserved areas. 

Ortega also noted that, to date, all the program graduates passed their certification board exam on their first try. But that hardly surprises him. After all, he said, the grantees already had earned their bachelor’s degrees in nursing, which can be challenging for any student—but particularly those from low-income neighborhoods who attended underperforming high schools or were the first in their families to go to college. 

These students, Ortega said, typically rely on student loans and often must work full time while in college—a burden Ortega is very familiar with. When he arrived in Miami from Cuba without knowing English in 1995, he worked two jobs waiting tables to put himself through UM’s nursing school. Today, in addition to teaching, he works in the ERs of South Miami and Baptist hospitals. 

“The financial challenges of pursuing an advanced-level nursing education are insurmountable for many full-time students. They often abandon their goal or drop to part-time status so they can continue earning an income,” Ortega said. “But these obstacles are more prevalent in minority students—the very students we need to retain if we are going to diversify the nursing workforce. By relieving the financial burdens, the HRSA grants will accelerate graduation rates, increase the number of nurse practitioners from disparity populations, and help meet the growing need for primary care providers in Miami-Dade County.” 

Arana, who is in the initial grant’s final group of awardees, managed to finish her undergraduate degree debt-free because, as she put it, “I was a little bit of a nerd in high school, so I got a Bill Gates Scholarship.” Awarded to only 300 outstanding, minority, high school seniors from low-income households every year, the Gates Scholarship pays the full cost of their undergraduate degrees. 

But even with her HRSA scholarship, she works part time at Miami’s Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, piloting a newly created role of admission, discharge, and transfer nurse, so she can continue contributing to her parents’ household. “They sacrificed a lot to give me the opportunities I’ve had,” said Arana, who in middle school remained in Miami with distant relatives when her parents and older brothers were deported to their Peruvian homeland.

Those were difficult days, but her summer trips to visit her family led her to her calling. While in Peru she and her mother volunteered for organizations that provided food and health screenings to people living without everyday necessities, like clean water. “It taught me the importance of having access to health care to prevent disease, not just treat it,” she said. 

By high school, when Arana began volunteering as a bedside buddy for the young patients at Nicklaus, she knew she wanted to be a nurse. “I loved the role of the nurse,” she said. “How you know the most about the patient. How you integrate the whole family. How you address lifestyle issues. How you can connect them to resources that will improve their health.” 

With her master’s degree, Arana hopes to continue doing all that, but on a scale beyond the walls of a single hospital. “My goal is to work with vulnerable populations across South Florida on health promotion and disease prevention. Right now, too many people seek health care only when they’re acutely ill. I want to help change the paradigm. I want them to have preventative care to stay healthy.” 

And, as Cindy L. Munro, the school’s dean, said, that’s always been one of nursing’s driving goals, but it’s especially important now, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic and calls for social justice are underscoring the impacts of racial and ethnic disparities. 

“As fortunate as we are to live in a richly multicultural region, we know the burden of chronic diseases and their associated risk factors are greater for minorities,” Munro said. “This renewed HRSA support will be critical in helping us continue to prepare advanced practice nurses, many from minority groups themselves, to promote equity in medically underserved communities and address serious health disparity gaps across Miami-Dade County and our nation.”