Published February 1, 2023
By Christina Hernandez Sherwood
To alleviate the New Jersey nursing shortage, an anonymous donor created a $2 million nursing scholarship for first-generation students.
New Jersey—especially Essex County—needs nurses. Now, one Newark high school and a generous donor to Rutgers School of Nursing is poised to create a new pipeline for nurses from and for the region.
By 2021, the relentless toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on health care workers led to a nationwide nurse vacancy rate of 17 percent, according to the 2022 NSI National Health Care Retention and RN Staffing Report. The New Jersey Collaborating Center for Nursing, a nonprofit housed at the School of Nursing in Newark focused on nursing workforce solutions, found that demand was high for nurses across the state. And the problem is particularly acute in Essex County, where health care systems and other employers posted more than 1,100 nursing job openings in 2021—the highest of any county in the state.
“It’s really putting a strain on hospitals,” says Edna Cadmus, the center’s executive director and clinical professor at Rutgers School of Nursing. “They’re struggling right now.”
To encourage students to join nursing’s dwindling ranks, an anonymous donor gave the Rutgers School of Nursing $2 million to establish an endowed fund that will provide full tuition scholarships for nursing undergraduates each year. The first preference for the scholarship goes to bachelor’s degree students from Newark area high schools, particularly those coming from Weequahic High School, where the donor graduated. A related gift of $60,000 will fund the first two scholarship awards beginning in the 2023-2024 academic year.
“The nursing shortage has reached crisis levels across the nation,” says Linda Flynn, dean and professor at Rutgers School of Nursing. “Scholarships like this are extremely important to help bring in new nurses, especially those who come from underrepresented, urban communities like Newark. We’re profoundly grateful for this generous gift supporting our school’s commitment to expanding opportunities for nursing education to meet the growing demand.”
The donor—a Newark native who settled out of state—became motivated to fund this scholarship after her husband’s medical diagnosis made home health nurses a fixture in their home. The nurses hailed from countries as far-flung as Uganda and shared with the couple their stories of coming to the United States and joining the health care profession.
Since her husband’s passing, the donor has continued to partner with nurses in evaluating the effectiveness of her own care plan, advocating with primary care practitioners, ensuring comprehensive standards of care, and assisting in designing or implementing programs to address her needs. She hopes the scholarship will encourage more students to pursue careers in nursing.
Brian L. Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences and the executive vice president for health affairs at Rutgers University, says the gift will have great impact fulfilling the need for more nurses. “As key members of the health care team, nurses play a critical role in improving health outcomes and reducing health disparities across the globe,” Strom says. “Rutgers School of Nursing, one of our nation’s top-ranked nursing schools, is uniquely positioned to support the profession’s growth.”
The scholarship comes at an opportune time for Weequahic, one of Newark’s comprehensive public high schools. As part of a district-wide strategic plan, each of these six schools has launched a sector-focused “academy” in the 2019-2020 school year to jump-start their students’ future careers. The high-school academies focus on job sectors such as business and finance, education, law and public safety, engineering, and environmental studies.
The first cohort of Weequahic High School Allied Health Services Academy students will graduate in June. These 22 students spent four years studying subjects like human body systems and medical interventions and interning at nearby Newark Beth Israel Medical Center to prepare for futures in nursing, medicine, and other health care fields.
“We’re trying to prepare our students for the real world once they graduate and go into the field,” says Yolanda Cassidy-Bogan, school-to-career coordinator with the Pathways to College Program offered by the Newark Board of Education.
Thanks to an academic partnership with Rutgers School of Health Professions, the academy helps students graduate from high school with at least one advanced certificate. “We work hard to prepare the kids for admission to college,” says Newark Schools Superintendent Roger Leon. “That is clear.”
As in many communities across the country, plenty of high school students in Essex County struggle to afford college. “There’s a financial impact for students making that decision,” Leon says. “The [Rutgers nursing scholarship] donor eliminates the financial impediment to continuing their education.”
Cassidy-Bogan, a Weequahic graduate, says the scholarship is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for aspiring nurses. “If I were a freshman and had that opportunity, that would definitely be my focus,” she says. “This full scholarship is a dream come true for our students.”
Along with helping to address the overall nurse shortage in the state and the region, the Rutgers scholarship is also a nod to increasing diversity within the nursing workforce, giving first-generation college students preference for funding.
The scholarship will open doors for generations of Weequahic students, many of whom are the first in their families to pursue higher education, Leon says. “[This money] is going to provide the health care workforce with students who look like [our population] in Newark, and then create a pathway for more students to follow,” he says. “It’s just a complete game changer of a donation.”