One of the five qualities that define the Marquette Nurse is a steadfast commitment to social justice. Patients cannot be separated from the context of their lives: their demographic backgrounds, unique experiences, cultures and how the confluence of these things impacts their health. Cultural fluency and anti-racism are more than moral stands; they are essential for the effective practice of nursing.
In recognition of this truth, Marquette Nursing has its own Committee on Equity and Inclusion to ensure the college’s diversity, equity and inclusion objectives are fulfilled. Elected among the faculty and staff, the committee meets monthly to discuss how to better support students, faculty and staff from underrepresented communities.
Dr. Tana Karenke, a member of the committee, knows firsthand just how important that mission is to the college. She teaches the Culture and Health course as a clinical assistant professor and serves as a mentor/adviser specialist in Project BEYOND-2, a federally funded program that seeks to improve diversity in health care through funding support for undergraduate students.
“After nearly four years of talking to students from diverse backgrounds and hearing their stories, I felt that I had to do more to serve,” Karenke says. “We have these goals around DEI, but how can we better infuse that into the curriculum or into the social atmosphere of the college?”
In addition to bolstering racial and gender diversity, the College of Nursing considers support of first-generation college students a core priority. Twenty-six percent of incoming freshmen in 2022 were the first in their family to go to college, up from 15.2 percent in 2018.
Fostering a community conducive to first-generation college students is a personal mission for Karenke, who was a first-generation college student herself at University of Wisconsin Colleges before completing her bachelor’s degree at Alverno College. She later received her doctorate from Marquette. Karenke recalls the burden of working full time, providing for her own rent, vehicle costs, and helping her single mother pay utility bills during her undergraduate years — an experience that is familiar to many students like her.
“I had a very nuanced experience, and it was very lonely and difficult at times and I’d like to use my roles on the DEI committee and Project BEYOND-2 to make it a less isolating experience for future nurses,” Karenke says.
The eight-member committee is chaired by Dr. Terrie Garcia, director of inclusive excellence and student success in the college. The committee is comprised of four faculty members, two staff members, one undergraduate student representative and one graduate student representative.
“I joined this program to contribute to the important work of promoting equity, diversity and inclusion within the health care industry, starting here on campus for current students and generations to come,” sophomore undergraduate representative Bernice Erhabor says. “I want to encourage conversations that address pressing issues within our nursing community and cultivate a welcoming environment for all to thrive socially, emotionally and professionally.”
Erhabor’s ambitions are shared by assistant professor Kim Whitmore, who describes her first eye-opening moments around DEI issues happening when she began dating her future husband, who is Black, in college.
“My husband and I were college students at the same time and because of his race, he was treated very differently by the system and by his peers,” Whitmore says. “I’m now raising biracial children and I’ve seen firsthand the impacts of implicit bias and racism.”
Whitmore’s passion for this issue deepened over the course of her career as a home care nurse, where she would encounter families who struggled with basic needs and lacked the support needed to properly manage childcare at home. She described how she cared for families who were told by the pharmacist to store their children’s medicine in the refrigerator when they didn’t own a working refrigerator.
“We need do a better job assessing the social determinants of health when we work with families,” Whitmore says. “We’re not just teaching this stuff to check off a box that says we talked about diversity, equity and inclusion; this all really matters. It’s what makes you a Marquette nurse, it’s what will help you be a better human in this world. Critical thinking about your own biases is crucial if you’re going to be of service to all people, not just people who look like you or who come from the same background that you do.”
The committee supports programming for students who allow them to learn more about these issues. In September, the college screened “The Color of Care,” a documentary highlighting how people of color consistently receive substandard health care, with a particular focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. Students watched the film and then attended an interdisciplinary panel discussion among faculty in the College of Nursing and Klingler College of Arts and Sciences.
Events like these do more than just reinforce classroom learning; they move conversations about the value of culturally aware nursing from the theoretical realm to the tangible one.
“We have to listen; we cannot just assume that the way we do things is the best way just because it aligns with our own experiences,” Karenke says.
All three representatives said the committee’s greatest value is that it keeps DEI top of mind and part of the college’s identity — something that does not happen without constant attention from people who care about building a truly inclusive community.