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Then & Now: African American Impact & Minority Student Growth

THEN & NOW: AFRICAN AMERICAN IMPACT & MINORITY STUDENT GROWTH

The University of Pittsburgh’s School of Nursing strives to be inclusive and diverse. Students, faculty and staff come from various ethnic backgrounds; and the school works hard to admit students from all walks of life. In fact, a scholarship program is directly geared towards undergraduate nursing students from populations that are underrepresented in the nursing field.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1940s it took three Black women to pave the way for future generations.

THE PIONEERS

In 1943, Adena Johnson Davis, Rachel Poole and Nadine Frye were the first Black women to be admitted into Pitt’s nursing program. The trio broke the color barrier for nursing in Pittsburgh but were met with challenges along the way.

Johnson Davis, BSN ’47, was an A student at Peabody High School and was convinced it was enough to get her into Pitt’s nursing program. But the school’s secretary, who was white, told her flat out: the school wasn’t accepting Blacks.

Poole, BSN ’47, was covaledictorian at Westinghouse High and was told by every nursing school in the city that Blacks weren’t welcome. “I was absolutely livid,” she said in a 2008 interview. “I refused umpteen scholarships [from Black schools in the south]. I figured, ‘I live in Pittsburgh, I should be able to go to school here.’”

A year later, both women, along with Frye, MLIT ’51, BSN ’47, were admitted to the school.

Johnson Davis went on to have a long career at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital and was later named head nurse at the Veterans Administration hospital. Poole became the first Black director of nursing at (UPMC) Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Frye earned a PhD in education and taught mental health nursing at Pitt.

“I was proud of Pitt for letting us in, no matter how they let us in,” Frye said in a 2008 interview, “because they were the first.”

MAKING WAVES

The school has come a long way since 1943 in terms of accepting minority students and has seen its Black population continue to grow over the decades.

In the 2001-2002 school year, 28 Black students were enrolled in the School of Nursing’s BSN program. 20-years later, the number jumped to 40 Black students. The Hispanic student population also saw growth over the past 20-years: from only 4 students enrolled in the 2001-2002 school year, to 57 students in 2021-2022. The Asian student population saw the most significant growth: 7 students were enrolled in the school’s undergrad nursing program in 2001-2002 compared to 101 students in 2021-2022.

But there’s room for growth.

Out of 80 faculty members, only five are African American.

DIVERSITY EQUITY AND INCLUSION COMMITTEE

The School of Nursing wants to see those numbers continue to rise and actively recruits minority students and faculty. The Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee at the School of Nursing was designed to promote diversity, equity and inclusion among faculty, staff, and students through a collaboration with the school’s administration, the Health Sciences Diversity Equity and Inclusion Office and the University Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion.

“Increasing diversity is responding to changes in the population of our country,” said Julius Kitutu, chief diversity officer, and associate dean, Student Affairs and Alumni Relations. “We don’t want to be left behind in preparing our current professionals creating a world that works for all.”

The UPMC Scholars program, a partnership between UPMC health system and Pitt’s School of Nursing, aims to bring a more diverse population into the school. The program rewards academically talented undergraduate nursing students from populations that are underrepresented in the nursing field, including Black and Hispanic communities. UPMC scholars, who meet the admission criteria, attend tuition free and are guaranteed a nursing job at UPMC health system after they graduate and pass their licensure examination.

“The UPMC Scholars program is critical in recruiting a diverse student population,” said Pitt Nursing Dean Jacqueline Dunbar Jacob. “The ability to provide the scholarship support has increased the numbers of highly skilled underrepresented students in our program which will only increase the number of underrepresented nurses in the workforce.”

The program receives multiple applications from underrepresented students and has seen a significant growth in applicants over the years. For example, in the 2018-2019 admission year, 18 students applied for the Scholars Program, while in the 2022-2023 admission year, 45 students applied for the scholarship for only 12 spaces. Applicants go through a rigorous selection process and ultimately 12 students are awarded the scholarship.

Leaders say the increased diversity within the school has had major impacts, including in recruiting.

“When people come to the school and they don’t see people who look like them, they question, and they say this isn’t a place for me,” says Kitutu. “We would like to make sure that whoever comes into the school sees people of the same interests. Maybe it’s not color. But people with the same interests.”

BACK TO THE STARTING LINE

If it wasn’t for Adena Johnson Davis, Rachel Poole and Nadine Frye, diversity within the School of Nursing may look a lot different today. All three women were active in the alumni association and in recruiting Blacks into nursing. Pitt named a scholarship after Johnson Davis that offers full cost of attendance and awarded to a promising African American Student, and Poole’s commitment to education stayed with her until her death in 2017.

Three Black women who didn’t let the word ‘no’ stop them from following their dreams – trailblazers of their time.