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University of Texas Rio Grande Valley: Producing a Predominately Mexican-American Nursing Workforce in South Texas for More Than 40 Years

02/20/2017 06:00AM | 7202 views

As the U.S. Hispanic population’s growth spurt continues, healthcare organizations increasingly ponder how they’ll attract much-needed “culturally competent” staff, especially when Hispanics remain so underrepresented across most healthcare careers.

Colleges continue to struggle to attract Hispanic nursing students. Only 5 percent of RNs across the nation identify as Latino, even though 17 percent of the American population is now Hispanic.

But for more than four decades, two recently consolidated university nursing programs in South Texas have graduated thousands of Latino nurses to care for the area’s large population. They’ve also helped fill the opportunity gap across this historically diverse, high-unemployment region.

“We produce practitioners with critical thinking skills who will provide culturally competent, holistic Nursing care,” says Carolina Huerta, EdD, RN, FAAN, Interim Nursing Director and professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), one of the nation’s few federally designated “Hispanic Serving Institutions.” “If not for us, the university, there would not be teachers in the area, physician’s assistants or nurses. We offer all types of degrees, and are helping improve living standards.”

Situated near the border on the Gulf of Mexico, UTRGV’s School of Nursing comprises the former programs at the University of Texas at Brownsville, and the University of Texas Pan-American. Roughly 85 percent of its students are Mexican-American.

Filling a need

The program continues to grow and evolve. When Huerta arrived at Pan- American in the early 1970s, few people in the Rio Grande Valley area held bachelor’s degrees in nursing. The campus offered an AAS degree in Nursing. Beyond that, only vocational nursing programs were available in the Rio Grande Valley. The nearest four-year RN degree program was 225 miles away in San Antonio, Texas.

Fresh out of college herself, Huerta soon saw the local need for highly skilled nurses. She also wanted to help the region achieve educational parity. As department chair in 1990, Huerta and her colleagues finally established the area’s first four-year, baccalaureate nursing program, followed in 1994 by a master’s program to instruct nurse practitioners and nurse educators.

Today, the School of Nursing mixes classroom instruction and online learning to graduate well over 100 bachelors of nursing science students each year into an important career that pays well and provides excellent job security.

Not surprisingly, Huerta is much lauded for her contribution to nursing, and is a recipient of numerous accolades. She has served as a board director for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), and as president of the Texas Organization of Baccalaureate and Graduate Education. She also chaired a scholarship program funded by AACN and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, designed to support accelerated nursing programs. In 2012, she was inducted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, an honor recognizing extraordinary contributions to nursing and health care.

Aligning with cultural values

So how does UTRGV’s School of Nursing attract and nurture young Hispanic talent?

For one, it takes a more holistic approach to care, which aligns well with Latino values. The curriculum emphasizes “wellness,” rather than illness. Courses include content on culture, holism, health promotion, and healing approaches, such as folk medicine. Educators encourage students to consider the patient in their entirety, as a person and member of a multicultural society with a job and family.

“We produce nurses who look at clients as people,” Huerta says. Sensitivity to Hispanic and other cultures is essential.

For example, because Hispanic patients naturally surround themselves with family, students from all backgrounds must be aware of that importance. “A nurse can explain what the doctor said,” Huerta says. However, even when Hispanic students don’t speak Spanish, their cultural aptitude can provide solace for families. “Finding someone who speaks Spanish isn’t a problem,” she says. But understanding the cultural needs of patients is paramount, as when treating a child.

“In my research on cultural competence, I found that the family is very important when instructing a young mother. Of course, if the grandmother doesn’t agree, it’s not going to get done,” Huerta reminds. Likewise, for major decisions, men are important, as well. “So students need to know that nurses need to include them when speaking to the family.”

To help sharpen those skills in the clinical setting, the undergraduate program even requires that students explain how their care provides cultural competence and comfort as they fill out related paperwork.

Pursuing a successful future

Students who successfully complete a nursing school program typically reap immediate rewards, Huerta says. Healthcare organizations routinely set up lunches for UTRGV undergraduate nursing students to connect with the school’s talent. There’s a lot of recruitment, she says. And the opportunities are solid. Nursing salaries in the Rio Grande Valley area of South Texas average $74,000 annually, according to, a nationwide job listings site. Many current area positions offer signing bonuses, as well.

Overcoming challenges 

UTRGV’s School of Nursing programs succeed, in part, because its leaders thoroughly understand the challenges faced by its student population.

Program administrators nursing facultybelieve it’s not enough just to admit career seekers to a program. Providing them the support to navigate four years of school, and graduate and pass NCLEX (state boards that determine whether a candidate is prepared for entry-level nursing practice) is the goal, says Huerta.

Many students from the Rio Grande Valley come from lower-income backgrounds. Many are first- or second-generation Americans who may be limited in English fluency. Others attend school while also working. Faculty members get to know students in class and clinical settings, then intervene with those they identify as “at-risk.” For example, a student failing at mid-term, or needing to repeat a course can be deemed at-risk, especially when coupled with other factors, including difficulties at home, work, or school. The school steps in with counseling, tutoring and other help, Huerta says. For example, students struggling to transition from junior to senior year can attend a summer course to bolster their knowledge in the classroom and clinical area. Successful learners may proceed to senior year studies. As seniors, students must pass a readiness exam to graduate, which also indicates readiness for state board exams. Aspiring nurses who miss on the first try may attend a course to remediate problem areas, and then retest. Or, they may be guided to remediate on their own and retest.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, like all major universities, also supports its students with a learning center, large library, excellent academic services,and several retention initiatives. For many area students, securing financial aid is essential to pursuing a nursing career. UTRGV seeks to connect undergrads with funding that they often don’t know exists.

In addition to intervening for at-risk students, providing funding sources and teaching cultural competence, the program encourages mentoring. At UTRGV, students mentor each other, but Huerta hopes that one day the school can provide a larger number of outside professionals to guide students, as well.

Setting an example for healthcare providers

Hospitals and other healthcare providers looking to attract more Hispanics can learn from well-researched literature, especially when it comes to offering support systems to employees, such as mentoring, counseling, child care and retention initiatives.” 

They should also use role models “who look like the students” they want to attract, Huerta says.

“Recruitment materials should be targeted with the population in mind,” she says, encouraging use of minority nurse images in advertising.

Right now, it’s increasingly important for healthcare organizations to actively attract and support Hispanics in nursing careers. Otherwise, they may ultimately risk losing patient trust and providing culturally incompetent, unsafe patient care.

Fortunately, the people of Rio Grande Valley won’t likely have that issue any time soon.

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