Very few would argue that it takes a special type of person to be a nurse. Equal parts caregiver, investigator, counselor, comforter, and overall connector—they translate the intricate world of healthcare for patients.
The PROUD program in the Mennonite College of Nursing exemplifies the core value of individualized attention at Illinois State University, preparing future nurses to care for others. “PROUD has truly been my rock,” said Illinois State senior Sydney Davis, who noted she struggled with courses during her junior year. “The support from this program helps me navigate through college and realize that I deserve to be here.”
A grant program designed to assist nursing students from populations that are historically underrepresented, the PROUD program (Pre-entry and Retention Opportunities for Undergraduate Diversity) involves tutoring, test preparation, peer mentoring, and financial support. Starting in 2012, the program at Illinois State has been funded twice with three-year Nursing Workforce Diversity grants from Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Since the first graduating class in 2015, 222 students have taken part in the University’s PROUD program.
“I think the program helps students feel they are not alone in this,” said PROUD Program Coordinator Barb Stamets. “Underrepresented students might have more hoops to jump through, more barriers to overcome. We’re there to help them find success and achieve what they want to do.”
During freshman and sophomore year, students take general classes, not tackling nursing coursework until junior year. The first two years of the program provide general tutoring and peer mentoring from PROUD juniors and seniors. “The greatest part is having an older student to talk to, just about how you’re feeling or how pre-nursing classes are going,” said Annie Rius ’21 who works as a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago. While at Illinois State, Rius was a PROUD mentee and later served as a mentor. “With my mentee, we talked about organizational tactics, study guides, and really just checking in.”
Junior and senior year, the intense work of nursing courses begins, as does an exploration of all aspects of the profession with more mentors assigned from faculty and community leaders. “Because of PROUD, I had many opportunities to speak with registered nurses from different specialties and hospitals, which actually helped me narrow down the specialty of nursing I wanted for my career,” said Gabriella Vazquez ’20, who now works as a pediatric nurse at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois.
Throughout the life of the program, the focus has always been on preparing nursing students for their future. Opportunities in PROUD reflect that goal, said Olanna Pullen who began as the outreach coordinator with PROUD in 2013, and later serving as program coordinator until 2018. “Successful nurses need to be involved in leadership, volunteerism, and service,” she said, adding the program connects students with partners in the ISU and Bloomington-Normal community. “It could be human resource professionals talking about what they look for in job applications from nurses, or people in professional nursing organizations and those with advanced degrees. Nurses take on important roles in the community, and students need to be ready for that.”
The connections made within the PROUD group are as equally important, noted Dr. H. Catherine Miller, who was the first project director for PROUD while serving as associate dean for academics at MCN. “Along with programs, we made sure to reach out to the students and keep them engaged in the program,” said Miller. “We needed them to know who they could come to, and that we wanted them to be successful.” Miller retired from MCN four years ago, but she continues to serve as a mentor for PROUD. “These students are amazing young people who have worked hard to achieve their goals.”
Part of that hard work comes in the form of often breathtakingly challenging national nursing exams. “It can be overwhelming, learning how to take practice skills tests,” said Stamets. “There’s an actual way to take a nursing exam that differs greatly from other tests. I think Professor Corwin helps a lot.”
Professor Catherine Corwin serves as the academic enhancement specialist for PROUD. “She is incredible,” said Mennonite Associate Dean for Research Dr. Mary Dyck. “She revamped the entire tutoring process to meet the individual needs of students.”
Each student in PROUD is required to attend monthly tutoring sessions. “I went to a lot more than that. I’d see Professor Corwin about once a week,” said Rius. “There was not a single time when I worked with her that I didn’t get a better grade on a test.”
Corwin, who has been working and teaching in nursing for more than 30 years, started with the PROUD program in 2017, overseeing tutoring with generalized study tables. “I did that for three months, and as soon as the semester ended, I knew that model needed to go away,” said Corwin. “The students needed a model that allowed them to tell me what they needed.” So, Corwin designed one, creating new study tables that allowed the opportunity for students to communicate with her ahead of their meetings. “It isn’t just about coursework. Sometimes it is career counseling or general questions,” she said. “It gives me a chance to get resources ready for students.”
“My favorite part of the program is study tables, which I probably utilize the most,” said Davis. “Professor Corwin would sit with me over Zoom multiple times a week just encouraging and helping me with topics where I struggled. She is a genius who cares about all of the students.”
In its early stages, MCN’s PROUD also hosted a summer program for high school students considering nursing.
Of all the tests for nurses, the one that looms largest is the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), which gives the designation of registered nurse (NCLEX-RN) or licensed practical nurse (NCLEX-PN). Corwin spent years helping students prepare for the exam and continued the work for the PROUD program. “Professor Corwin dedicated her time to creating questions and explaining different concepts to me,” said Vazquez. “I give much of my success on the NCLEX to the PROUD program and Professor Corwin.” Students in PROUD have a 97 percent pass rate of the NCLEX, far surpassing the 88 percent national pass rate.
Seeing the success of PROUD students is more than a matter of pride for Stamets. “PROUD students come from different backgrounds that provide so much for Mennonite College of Nursing’s growth. Their experiences enrich the college and the University,” said Stamets.
“The diversity aspect of PROUD drew me,” said Rius. “I love learning about other people’s backgrounds. I’m Cuban, and I’ll be caring for a variety of patients, so I need to hear their different perspectives to help them. I’m a nurse.”