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Sisters in Service: An Innovative Academic Relationship Between Howard University and NYU Seeks to Cultivate Cultural Competency in Nursing Education

Gina Brown, PhD, MSA, RN, FAAN, and Eileen Sullivan-Marx, PhD, RN, FAAN, are deans of two prestigious nursing schools in the U.S. Brown leads Howard University’s College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences and Sullivan-Marx leads New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing. Together, they aim to tackle health disparities through an innovative collaboration in the classroom.
Nursing News & ProgramsNurses Leading Innovation

Sisters in Service: An Innovative Academic Relationship Between Howard University and NYU Seeks to Cultivate Cultural Competency in Nursing Education

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Gina Brown, PhD, MSA, RN, FAAN, and Eileen Sullivan-Marx, PhD, RN, FAAN, are deans of two prestigious nursing schools in the U.S. Brown leads Howard University’s College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences and Sullivan-Marx leads New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing. Together, they aim to tackle health disparities through an innovative collaboration in the classroom.

Gina and Eileen shared a mentor in the late Bernardine Lacey, the founding dean of Western Michigan University School of Nursing, and a legend in the American Academy of Nursing. Gina recounted how, before her death in 2021, Bernardine encouraged the two leaders to meet and work together.

“She said to me, ‘you’ve got to be sisters,’” remembered Gina.

After meeting, the two accomplished leaders bonded over their shared love for nurse education and shoes, specifically Chuck Taylors. Gina recalled the “bold” Eileen presenting at an elite nursing conference in her white high tops and knew immediately that Bernardine was right.

This innovative partnership between Howard and NYU Meyers is not an ordinary academic partnership, Eileen explained, because their relationship is both built on trust and aims to be fully immersed into the fabric of each school. The program, which formally began in February 2021, will further diversify nursing research and education by leveraging the full breadth of knowledge and experience within the two acclaimed nursing schools. In addition to faculty and research collaborations—including joint academic appointments for interested faculty—students from both institutions can work together through programming and exchanges. These deeply integrated and institutionally ingrained connections are imperative as Gina and Eileen, with their respective institutions, seek to erase disparities that are prevalent in healthcare today.

Gina and Eileen are collaborating to expose both students and faculty to diverse perspectives. Gina underscored that one of the values of this program is that students and faculty are learning how to operate in the classroom, and at the bedside, without implicit bias, as they are being exposed to a more diverse population than they would within their home institutions. Both deans underscored that this early intervention and emphasis on cultivating cultural competency in the classroom, through teaching and learning from one another, is imperative to the future of nursing.

“We're working together in tandem to train nurses to be at the bedside, to be in nursing and to function to heal the sick,” said Gina. “We are trying to erase the disparities of color and provide healing for our patients.”

A key component of the partnership is recruiting Howard students to participate in an immersive summer research program at NYU Meyers. The summer program was designed by Victoria Vaughan Dickson, PhD, RN, FAHA, FHFSA, FAAN, associate professor and assistant dean for research innovation at NYU Meyers, in collaboration with Jacquelyn Taylor, PhD, RN, FAAN, professor at Columbia University School of Nursing, to engage students from underrepresented backgrounds in mentored research. The NIH-funded program aims to develop the next generation of researchers focusing on cardiovascular conditions and related topics including health disparities, ethics, genomics, clinical research and evidence-based practice. Through the partnership, three Howard University undergraduate nursing students enrolled in the 2021 virtual program where they were mentored by three NYU Meyers faculty.

The leaders have seen that the potential collaborations between the two institutions were endless. Audrey Lyndon, PhD, FAAN, RNC, professor and assistant dean for clinical research at NYU Meyers—who worked with Gina and Howard University on educational exchanges at her previous institution, the University of California, San Francisco—has sought to enable faculty at Howard and NYU to collaborate on existing research projects and jointly apply for grant funding for new projects.

“It’s a fully embraced relationship,” agreed Gina. “They’re on our faculty. We’re on their faculty. We’re working together on grants and articles.”

This innovative partnership is unique because of the level of integration. Eileen explained that it is common for universities to collaborate on individual projects or conferences, or, more generally, with memorandums of understanding (MOUs). The collaboration between NYU Meyers and Howard is a fully integrated relationship: from fundraising which could be shared to support the partnership functions and activities, to individual faculty appointments at both universities.

Like in any relationship, communication is key to growing and ensuring the success of this partnership. Gina and Eileen, along with their administrative leaders, meet on a monthly basis and empower other leaders and faculty in both schools to take the lead on different projects. Both leaders emphasized the need for top-down engagement and collaboration, and neither are too “big” to set an example. Eileen attended Howard’s new faculty orientation, sitting on Zoom alongside all the newly hired professors.

“This relationship is a ‘wow’ for both of us,” said Eileen. “It became infectious when our faculty saw the way we were engaged with one another.”

Audrey echoed this sentiment and credits the success of this innovative program to the culture that the two deans have created.

“This partnership is truly an example of what you can accomplish in a ‘yes’ culture,” said Audrey. “You can do so much when you buck the notion of ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’”

Together, Deans Brown and Sullivan-Marx are aiming to create a greater impact in improving health and health equity in urban areas and global communities. The leaders believe they can accomplish this through an emphasis on education and research, which they hope, in turn, retains nurses from the undergraduate level to the faculty level. By exposing undergraduate students to the research process earlier in their careers, they are encouraging these students to problem-solve, learn about and tackle the big challenges before they reach the bedside, or pursue the academic track.

“At the end of the fall semester, Gina and I challenged our faculty to think more clearly about and plan to invite in different perspectives into the classroom,” Eileen said.

For both deans, they envision a future where Howard and NYU Meyers students can cross-enroll in either school. In a few years, Gina said she would like to see undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students from both schools in the same classroom and learning from each other.

Eileen even imagines a future joint conference, lecture or professorship to honor their mentor, friend and their reason-for-being: Dr. Bernardine Lacey. The deans hope that the memory of their mentor will live out as this program continues to grow and evolve, whether through an annual moment, or through everyday progress.

“We took this leap together for the sake of society, for the sake of the profession and for the sake of our patients because I believe we can all grow and benefit so much from this,” said Eileen.

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