Research has shown one of the main reasons students drop out of college or are unsuccessful is because they lack a sense of belonging. Kent State University has begun developing university-wide strategies to help students feel connected to the community, but as nursing is a specialty, College of Nursing Dean Johnson-Mallard wanted a targeted approach to facilitate an inclusive community. Enter Taryn Burhanna, MSN ‘18, BSN ’10, APRN, NP-C, Coordinator of Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Services, Community Health Nursing Course Coordinator.

Burhanna, a two-time Kent State College of Nursing alumna who has been with the college as a full-time faculty member for four years, is the first to hold this position. In this new role, she will work with underrepresented and vulnerable students, including those who identify as first-generation college students, those suffering from financial hardships, mental health concerns and more, to connect them with support services and help them succeed in their educational pursuits.

“This is the beginning stage of developing programming to increase a sense of belonging for all Kent State University College of Nursing Students,” Burhanna explained. “The pandemic has added an extra layer of challenges for students seeking to enter the nursing profession. I welcome the opportunity to assist students in navigating through these challenging times and to help further diversify our nursing workforce.”

People want to see themselves in the faces of those who care for them. Having a diverse nursing workforce, that mirrors the diversity of the community, is one of the major pathways to closing the health disparity gaps. Creating a culture of inclusivity starts with practicing the concept of cultural safety.

“Underrepresented patients and students need to feel safe within their environments and that starts with figures of authority being able to be self-aware, empathetic and even vulnerable with regards to the experiences of underrepresented patients and students,” Burhanna stated. “Furthermore, research needs to include components of social justice from time to time and those in leadership especially, needs to communicate a strong message of inclusion while supporting that message with programming.”

Burhanna was drawn to academia, specifically at Kent State, because she wanted to work in an environment where she would always be learning while making meaningful contributions to her community.

“I wanted to join the team that was so influential to my own development and add my voice to that team. Kent State is a great institution to attend, work for and live around,” Burhanna shared. “I love seeing the excitement in my students as they are in new environments doing things they have never done. Their ‘light bulb’ moments are nice, but I particularly like it when a student learns not just a new bit of knowledge but a new approach or perspective.”

She recognizes that to inspire more students of underrepresented populations to consider entering the field of nursing, students need to be shown not only the benefits of the profession, but also that the pathway to becoming a BSN-prepared nurse is hard, but not impossible.  

“Nursing school on its own is rewarding in the patients you get to take care of in your clinical rotations and the bonds you build with your fellow nursing students along the way,” said Burhanna. “Graduating from nursing school, especially from Kent State, will quite literally change your life and the lives of many others.”

Back when Burhanna was exploring her career options, she knew she wanted to find something meaningful. Nursing, she discovered, was an ideal fit as the profession could open many doors. In the inpatient setting, she specialized in neurology, caring for anything from seizures to migraines, multiple sclerosis exacerbations and strokes. As an outpatient provider, Burhanna works in primary care and population health, providing care for those with no insurance or who are underinsured. 

“There’s a lot to love when considering the care you are able to provide. But what I loved most were the ‘little victories,’” remembered Burhanna. “Each time a patient is discharged home and they are feeling better and hopeful about their future health, that’s what I enjoy most about being a nurse.”

There are two women Burhanna looks to as role models, former First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Amy Acton, former director of the Ohio Department of Health and USA TODAY’s Women of the Year honoree from Ohio for 2022.

“Michelle Obama because of, among many other things, her work in bringing college campuses and communities together, along with advocating for better education for girls across the globe,” she said. “Amy Acton for her leadership here in Ohio during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Asked to share a memorable moment from her nursing career, Burhanna told a touching story about celebrating a patient’s birthday.

“The patient had intellectual disabilities, no living family and was really missing his roommates. The nursing unit brought balloons and treats and took care of my other patients while I sat with him to watch a movie,” she explained. “Anyone who has never been admitted to a hospital really can’t understand what a lonely, scary experience it is. It is especially so for certain people, and as nurses, we try to do all we can to help cope with those feelings.”

Some of Burhanna’s early nursing memories, however, were challenging. As a new nurse, she explained the profession tended to ‘eat their young’ and she found herself the target of incivility.

“As an African American woman and nurse, I heard derogatory words used around me, and sometimes at me, with a bit of venom from a patient,” recalled Burhanna. “It was uncomfortable, but it was important that I still provided excellent care to all – yes even those who wouldn’t take care of me.”

Over the years, Burhanna has observed the profession change in numerous ways.  Challenging situations have proven to be the exception and not the rule. Burhanna has overcome these experiences by extending compassionate care and honoring the humanity in each of her patients.

To combat the stress sometimes associated with the nursing profession, Burhanna makes time for personal self-care and expresses her gratitude to have the loving support of her family.

“I’m extremely lucky. My husband is my best friend and practically a chef, so he spoils me with really good food,” she shared happily. “I also run and workout to decrease anxiety, and I snuggle with my dogs while reading a book or watching a movie.”

In closing, Burhanna hopes to provide encouragement to individuals who identify as members of an underrepresented population, who are considering the profession of nursing.

“Join us and stay with us! The pandemic widened the health disparity gap, and we need representation in our nursing and provider workforce to close the gap,” she exclaimed. “Nursing is so rewarding in the end. Now more than ever, there are so many resources available to help all students but especially underrepresented students. You can do this!”