A Conversation with School of Nursing’s Inaugural Coordinator of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

A portrait of School of Nursing faculty member MaryAnn Perez-Brescia
MaryAnn Perez-Brescia, coordinator of the UConn School of Nursing’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, spoke with UConn Today about the new office and its role within the School.

Over the summer, the UConn School of Nursing established an Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, selecting faculty member MaryAnn Perez-Brescia as its inaugural coordinator.

The new office’s goal is to create an environment in which all faculty, staff, and students feel safe to be authentic and free to be their best selves. To do this, the office will assist with recruiting and retaining a diverse group of students, faculty, and staff; focusing the School’s research on the health needs of people underrepresented in science; positioning the School to address the health care needs of all Connecticut’s residents; and building relationships with diverse communities.

Perez-Brescia is a clinical instructor at the School of Nursing and has been a nurse for 28 years. She first joined the School of Nursing faculty in 2013, and studies how to improve health outcomes in Latinx people diagnosed with diabetes. In addition to developing and implementing mentoring programs for minority nurses, nursing students, and middle and high school students interested in nursing, she has been a leader in the New England Minority Nurse Leadership Conference and the National Association of Hispanic Nurses’ Connecticut Chapter. UConn Today spoke with her about the new office and its role within the School of Nursing.

What was your reaction to being asked to lead the School’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

Initially, I was terrified at the thought. There was so much healing that needed to occur and is still occurring. However, my desire to work toward something so important replaced those feelings of fear. We are all in this together; the environment cannot change with one person alone. We all must want to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion. I will do what I can to lead by example and without judgment. I will remain humble, as well, as I am always learning about the needs of students, faculty, and staff.

What will the School of Nursing’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion do?

There is no one thing that we will do. It is multifaceted and will take time. The first thing we must do is listen. We must be quiet and hear what our students, faculty, and staff are saying. We must be willing to acknowledge our failures in order to be better. We must not be afraid to be a part of difficult conversations. From there, we can critically analyze what has been created and transform it to what it should be. This will not be easy, but I believe we can do it.

Why is the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion important to the School and its mission?

First, diversity of students, staff, and faculty bring a whole new level of learning to the environment. We are better when our minds are challenged to think outside of our own perspectives. Challenging our own thoughts brings about new research and new ideas. Most important, we will be creating a workforce that will be prepared to care for diverse communities and improve health outcomes for all people. As nurses, our practice is embedded in ethics and social justice. We must embrace and advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion to be consistent with our foundational beliefs as nurses.

What can students expect from the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

Students can expect to be heard. We anticipate restarting our diversity taskforce for students in a virtual setting. Students can expect faculty to educate themselves to become more culturally intelligent. This will improve support for the diverse needs of students as well as develop diverse curricula. Again, this will not happen overnight, but faculty are invested in providing a welcoming nursing environment that leads to success for all students.

What do you hope to accomplish as the Coordinator of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and how will progress within the School be assessed?

I hope that everyday programing – such as advising, curriculum, creating policies and procedures, search committees, student recruitment and admission – will be based on a philosophy of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Before any decision is made, we need to always be asking ourselves: “Who will this affect? Who will benefit and who will this create a barrier for? Is it equitable for all students, faculty, and staff?” This baseline thinking will begin to change structures that we have relied on for many years and create a more inclusive environment for our students. I would like to see the development of a comprehensive strategic plan that includes an onboarding program for all faculty, staff, and students that speaks to our diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Our progress will be measured in many ways; a change in the narratives of faculty, staff, and students is one way to measure it. I hope to hear a new narrative that describes inclusivity and equity. Recruitment of diverse faculty, staff, and students is a start, but sustainability and their success will be the final outcome.

How are current events factoring into the office’s plans and activities?

Our justice system has demonstrated time and time again that the systems created to protect people are not equitable. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the continued health disparities faced by Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Statistics continue to flood research validating that health care is not equitable. Yet, as health care providers, we commit to serving all people. Our rates of diverse student enrollment and graduation confirm that barriers exist and prevent the advancement of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Academia has the power to influence and eliminate barriers to diversity, equity, and inclusion in institutional policies, procedures, practices, and everyday operations. What does it say about a profession that is ethically committed to caring for all people if we say or do nothing? Current events have challenged us and hold us accountable for advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion. We cannot remain silent and must move forward with action and intention.

How can School of Nursing faculty and students get involved?

We will continue to search for the best educational opportunities for faculty and staff. These opportunities will provide culturally sensitive learning that can be applied to all aspects of the nursing program. We are also currently hosting an ongoing book discussion of “How to Be an Antiracist,” which is open to all faculty and staff. Students can become involved in the Diversity Taskforce Group. Both the book discussions and diversity taskforce are safe environments to engage in honest conversations.

Most importantly, faculty, staff, and students can self-educate. There is a vast amount of education on anti-racism available from reliable sources in our library. Understanding racism and how it is alive and real in our everyday world is the first step. Sometimes you may not see what is in front of you every day. Don’t be afraid to become uncomfortable. Talk about it openly. Question what is unjust. Be kind and listen.

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