When Donna Nickitas accepted the role of dean at the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden ,she had one main goal: to be a good neighbor. “What attracted me to Camden was the community and the university’s role as an anchor institution,” said Nickitas, who became dean in 2018. “The School of Nursing was here to grow as an active community partner, and I accepted that challenge.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, Nickitas started volunteering for the American Red Cross at St. Vincent’s Medical Center when she was 14 years old. The first in her family to attend college, she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing at SUNY Stony Brook and New York University and went to work as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps. Nickitas spent three years of active duty in Rapid City, South Dakota, and worked as a flight nurse in New Jersey before earning her doctorate and rising to the rank of major in the Air Force Nurse Reserve Corps. The experience set the tone for her career in public service, centered on her steadfast belief that nurses should serve society and do public good.
Under four years of Nickitas’ leadership, the School of Nursing has flourished into a hub of social change that is improving health outcomes in Camden, South Jersey, and beyond. In light of a number of recognitions awarded to the School of Nursing and the National League for Nursing’s declaration of 2022 as the Year of the Nurse Educator, Nickitas reflected on nursing leadership in the 21st century, her vision for advancing health equity, and how she’s building a school designed to educate a more compassionate, culturally competent workforce.
One of Nickitas’ first priorities was to connect the School of Nursing’s resources with the communities most in need of support. Less than two miles from Rutgers–Camden’s campus, residents at the Branches at Centerville—an affordable housing complex run by the City of Camden—struggled to obtain basic health care, due to factors such as lack of transportation and childcare. Nickitas invited housing authority employees to campus to discuss how they might work together. “They took up the whole conference room,” she said with a laugh. “They just kept saying ‘We’re so glad you’re here. We’re so excited to work with the nursing program.’”
That initial conversation set in motion plans for what would later become a student-run health center, located on-site at the Branches. Today, residents can access free health care services—routine physical exams; hearing and blood pressure screenings; and classes on first aid, nutrition, and chronic condition management—without having to leave their building. Since the health center’s doors opened in late summer 2019, students have delivered more than 15,000 hours in support of the Branches community.The partnership has since expanded into a second health center in Ablett Village, another Camden Housing Authority community.“We want to do population health work that is embedded in the places where people live, work, play, and worship,” Nickitas said. “We bring health care to them.”
Preparing a culturally competent workforce
As the COVID-19 pandemic magnified systemic and longstanding inequities in health care, Nickitas said there is a heightened need for nurses and health care providers who can provide skilled and sensitive care in underserved communities. She believes community-based education is a critical step toward preparing the next generation of health care professionals to “serve all of society.”
Over the past four years, School of Nursing students have continued to offer place-based care through the school’s health centers, pop-up clinics, and more than 125 clinical partners. From providing medical care and screenings for homeless guests at a local church to administering more than 100,000 COVID-19 vaccinations to at-risk populations throughout South Jersey, as well as assisting overburdened school nurses with COVID contact tracing, students fill critical gaps in health care services while gaining valuable experience and connections.
In the school’s simulation lab, students exercise compassion and therapeutic communication skills with advanced mannequins controlled by clinical instructors. Riana Hicks, a junior who is vice president of the Student Nursing Association, said instructors often use the mannequins, as well as case studies, to present complex social needs that students might encounter in a real-world setting. “In each case study, we’re having to clinically think about social situations,” Hicks said. “Let’s say we have a patient coming in for a prenatal visit and we prescribe her something, but she doesn’t have health insurance. How would we go about educating her if she may not be able to obtain a prescription? We do a lot of work on social factors and adjusting our thinking beyond a simple cut-and-dried patient with health insurance.”
Serving the Public Good
Nickitas is excited about plans to build a rigorous portfolio of research into the social, economic, and environmental issues that impede access to quality care. Working with Mei Rosemary Fu, senior associate dean of nursing research, she’s executing a plan to grow the School of Nursing’s research practice into a collaborative, prolific enterprise.
When Fu arrived on campus in June 2021 and met with faculty to assess their research strength and interests, she was inspired by the commitment to social justice she heard echoed among colleagues. Based on her conversations with faculty and community stakeholders, Fu and Nickitas established four key pillars that form the backbone of the enterprise:
Part of Fu’s role is empowering faculty to see themselves not only as teachers, but as passionate researchers and thought leaders. Guided by the core pillars, she began working with faculty to help them conceptualize new projects and secure the infrastructure they need to bring them to life. Since June 2021, Fu and her team have applied for more than $1.3 million in grant funding to support these ventures. “Our faculty understands that research is everyone’s responsibility,” Fu said. “Research is the foundation for the whole health of the institution.”
Faculty examine health topics through an intersectional lens that recognizes factors such as race, income, education, ability, and immigration status. This includes research on disparities in breast cancer incidence and mortality among Black women and a study on mindfulness strategies in reducing medical and mental health issues. This year, Fu hopes to expand their research on environmental justice communities, using Camden as a case study to understand how vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by climate change. “In order to solve problems, you have to understand them first,” Fu said. “The initial step is building pillars consistent with the nation’s priorities, and helping our faculty develop the critical research skills to be successful.”
“In order to solve problems, you have to understand them first. The initial step is building pillars consistent with the nation’s priorities, and helping our faculty develop the critical research skills to be successful.”
Success amid challenges
Nickitas has overcome massive hurdles in her four years of deanship—a pandemic and overnight shift to online learning, virtual clinicals, student burnout, staffing shortages, and more. Despite these challenges, 2021 brought a wave of new accomplishments, including new accreditations by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, fellowships with the American Academy of Nursing and the American College of Nurse-Midwives, and a proclamation from Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen praising the school for its multifaced contributions to the city. In November 2021, the National League for Nursing named the Rutgers–Camden school a National Center for Nursing Excellence for its efforts to enhance student learning and professional development—a designation awarded to only 23 nursing programs in the country.
Nickitas credits her colleagues’ commitment and unwavering support in helping her fulfill her vision. Whatever the next four years bring, she is confident they’ll continue to face challenges head-on and prepare future nurses to do the same. As the first class of students who began their studies under her watch graduates this May, she looks forward to seeing them embrace their roles as innovators and agents of change.“We have a lot to be proud of,” she said.