Project BEYOND-2 creates mentorships to help underrepresented, first-generation students

Lesly Ventura came to Marquette in the fall of 2020 anxious about not fitting in. As a Hispanic student from northern New Jersey, the nursing junior didn’t think she would see a lot of people who looked like her.

“Nursing school is already a lot, but feeling alone or like you don’t have anyone to relate to in your classes was a lot too. It was something I had to adjust to,” Ventura says.

Luckily, Ventura had someone to turn to: her mentor, Leslie Sandoval, Nurs ’22.

“We didn’t know anything about each other, but I feel like I could vent to her, and she could tell me about her school and work experiences,” Ventura says. “We were just relating a lot on different things.”

“We meet once per month and we just talk about how it’s going in school,” Sandoval adds. “We give each other advice in school and work and that’s how we became friends.”

Ventura and Sandoval found this fast friendship through the RN Mentoring Program, which pairs juniors and seniors with nurses in the community. That program is part of Project BEYOND-2, which stands for Building Equitable Youth Opportunities for Nursing Diversity. It is a federally funded program that seeks to improve diversity in health care by increasing the number of nursing students from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds.

Dr. Terrie Garcia

Dr. Terrie Garcia is the college’s Director of Inclusive Excellence and Student Success, as well as the chief administrator of Project BEYOND-2. She came to Marquette in 2007. Garcia was also a first-generation college student, which provided personal insights into why programs like Project BEYOND-2 are so necessary.

“What I noticed most about nursing was that there were few nurses who looked like me, even in a majority-minority city like San Antonio,” Garcia says, reflecting on the beginning of her career in Texas. “After my husband retired from the Air Force, we moved to Wisconsin and I began working as a community health nurse. I quickly realized how glaringly evident the lack of minority nurses was in the workforce.”

Project BEYOND-2 has helped increase the percentage of students of color in the nursing school from 22 percent in the fall of 2019 to 27 percent today. Even with a larger incoming first-year class, students of color comprise more than 29 percent of the current Freshman class.

However, increasing enrollment from underrepresented students is just one challenge. The next, and more difficult, task is to build an environment conducive to their success. That’s where the mentorship aspect of Project BEYOND-2 comes in. Interested juniors and seniors in the program are paired with an alum in the workforce and have regular meetings with them.

Senior Lelana Murry navigated college with the help of Project BEYOND-2 mentors, and is now exploring the pediatric specialty thanks to Jacob Tetzmann, a PB2 graduate who is now a pediatric nurse. Both Tetzmann and Murry are first-generation college students and credit Project BEYOND-2 for helping them succeed.

“I think it’s just amazing that these past four years I’ve had a system that can support me and that actually cares about having people like me in the profession,” Murry says. “I don’t think I could have imagined being in nursing school without Project BEYOND.”

“The whole staff was always coming to me and asking, ‘How are you doing? What do you need help with?’ and it’s really genuine,” Tetzmann says. “I think the staff, the mentors and the students feel united in the fact that they’re there for each other. It’s a wonderful community where people can lean on each other in ways that not everyone can relate to.”

Fielding a diverse workforce is about more than creating opportunities for nurses — it also improves patient outcomes. Marquette’s College of Nursing curriculum emphasizes education about “social determinants of health,” the idea that a group’s economic and social conditions can influence their physical well-being. Increasing diversity in the nursing workforce is another way to help improve health outcomes for individuals from diverse backgrounds.

“We need to have a workforce that mirrors our patient populations,” Garcia says. “Diversity promotes an inclusive environment and addresses problems related to racial and cultural biases.”

Sandoval graduated Marquette in 2022 and now works at United Community Center, a Milwaukee nonprofit agency that has a partnership with Community Care Inc (CCI) to serve frail elders and adults with disabilities, an experience that she says came because of her time in Project BEYOND-2.

“Becoming part of this program was everything to me,” Sandoval says. “Nursing schools are predominantly white and not a lot of people looked like me. When I joined this program, I could talk about my feelings and what I was going through. They gave me advice, we talked, reflected, it was great. I really think Project BEYOND-2 was a key factor in getting me through nursing school.”

“Project BEYOND-2 does a great job of establishing a place on campus where Black and brown students feel supported,” Ventura adds. “If that program weren’t there, I don’t know if I would be able to get to where I am today.”

While Ventura still has more than a year of school left, Murry has just several weeks before she becomes a Project BEYOND-2 alumna. Tetzmann, who has worked with Murry ever since the 2022-23 academic year started, plans on advocating for her long after she graduates.

“I plan on checking in going forward after the mentorship ends,” Tetzmann says. “Whatever she plans for the future, she’s going to rock it. I have all the confidence in the world for her.”

Seeing these mentor-mentee relationships develop into successful friendships means everything to Garcia, who envisioned this role for her program when she came to Marquette more than 15 years ago.

“This is a journey that requires intentional collaboration and a collective effort from leaders, faculty, staff and students. The College of Nursing is committed to increasing diversity and promoting a sense of belonging for all,” Garcia says.