Serving the Needs of a Growing and Diversifying Wisconsin

A multi-colored image of the state of Wisconsin.

With a gift from the Oscar Rennebohm Foundation, the School of Nursing is addressing an immediate need to diversity health professions by first addressing the diversity of its students 

By Hayden Lamphere, WFAA

When the UW–Madison School of Nursing first opened its doors to students in 1924, it made history as the first collegiate nursing program in the state. Now, almost 100 years later, the School of Nursing is positioned, once again, to be at the forefront of nursing in Wisconsin as it tackles racial disparities in the profession. In the last few years, faced with dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial inequality, the School of Nursing made several determinations about necessary steps for the future. Chief of which was addressing a long-established and immediate need to make greater strides in diversifying the nursing profession. 

With Wisconsin falling drastically below the national benchmark for nursing workforce diversity, the School of Nursing is seeking to set an example by implementing meaningful steps to diversify both student and faculty populations. 

Looking ahead to the next 100 years, the School of Nursing is prioritizing educating a nursing workforce capable of achieving equitable care across ethnic and racial boundaries. “The residents of Wisconsin and beyond can no longer afford a delayed response to creating a diversified nursing workforce,” says Dean Linda D. Scott, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FNAP, FAAN. Now, with a major gift to the School of Nursing, the Rennebohm Initiative for Nurse Workforce Diversity and Health Equity is investing in the nurses and educators who will shepherd the field into the future.  

Since the Oscar Rennebohm Foundation began in 1949, they have devoted their resources to supporting various causes across Dane County. “Oscar Rennebohm was committed to the research at the university,” says board member Mary Gulbrandsen, MS’74, RN, PNP. The basic principles and tenets of the foundation were rooted in “everything from the health and well-being of the community to education and research.” Their goal is not only to fulfill the existing needs of the region but also create initiatives that improve lives in and beyond Madison well into the future.  

Shortly after Gulbrandsen joined the foundation’s board of directors in 2007, nursing shortages in Madison became more noticeable. As the Rennebohm Foundation began to look ahead, they sought feedback from the health care community to develop a plan. “We brought all the nurse leaders together from around the county and we talked about what was needed and what was the future of nursing,” says Gulbrandsen. After helping to commission a study on the supply and demand of nurses in Wisconsin, the foundation began to look forward and assess the future of nursing in the state. “That was really the beginning of Rennebohm linking to the School of Nursing,” says Gulbrandsen.  

As an alum, former faculty member, and current member of the Board of Visitors of the School of Nursing, Gulbrandsen is acutely aware of not only the needs of the field of nursing but also the School of Nursing’s ability to fulfill them. As Wisconsin’s population diversifies, “It has been well documented that having providers who mirror the populations they serve increases access to health care and decreases health inequities,” Scott says. “Given these facts, the need for intervention to diversify the nursing workforce is critical.” In the last five years, the population of students, faculty, and staff of color within the School of Nursing has steadily increased; however, despite progress, there is much more to be done. The Rennebohm Foundation’s gift supports this critical mission by providing financial support to students from underrepresented groups and populations, as well as students who may be facing barriers in their efforts to pursue further education. The scholarship aims to alleviate the expense of attending the UW–Madison School of Nursing while promoting health equity. 

Jackline Nekola ’20, DNPx’24
Jackline Nekola ’20, DNPx’24

The recipients of the funding from the Rennebohm Initiative for Nurse Workforce Diversity and Health Equity come from various undergraduate and graduate academic programs throughout the School. One recipient, Jackline Nekola ’20, DNPx’24, is a second-year doctor of nursing practice (DNP) student. Born and raised in Egypt, Nekola worked as an internal medicine physician for several years before moving to the United States. No longer able to practice medicine, “I started to look around and see what I could do with my life at that point,” says Nekola. After relocating to Madison in 2016 with her husband and two children, she realized a career in nursing would allow her to continue her passion for patient care and clinical judgment. Nekola enrolled at Madison College for prerequisites, enrolled at UW–Madison in 2019, and graduated from the School of Nursing’s accelerated bachelor of science in nursing program in 2020. 

Throughout the pandemic, Nekola was both a full-time student and a full-time nurse in the ICU. Despite having already earned her BSN, Nekola knew her experience as a physician could be valuable to others in her new profession. “I know there is a shortage of educators and I have a big background in [the] medical field,” she says, “I think I can use it to help and benefit future nursing students.” To achieve her goals of both teaching and nursing, she would have to continue into graduate studies. However, maintaining a full-time course load, a full-time nursing position, and her family would be unsustainable. “I couldn’t do it anymore,” Nekola says, “I was about to quit.”  

In the summer of 2021, with her home flooded from top to bottom, Nekola was forced to reconsider her future in nursing. “It was total damage, and I was thinking of not joining the [DNP] program because, financially, we were devastated at that point,” says Nekola.  

It was at this time that she received an email from the School of Nursing about the Rennebohm Initiative for Nurse Workforce Diversity and Health Equity. After being selected for the scholarship, Nekola had the means to proceed with her enrollment in the graduate program and transition to part-time work.   

Planning to graduate in May of 2024, Nekola wants to not only teach and do clinical work, but she also hopes to give back to communities like the one she grew up in.  “I was born and raised in a small village back in Egypt, and we had a shortage in medical supplies, medical personnel, and everything,” says Nekola, “I know how devastating that is for people.” Eventually, she aspires to practice in a rural area to treat underserved populations and provide access to treatment options they wouldn’t otherwise have.  

Students like Nekola and her fellow scholarship recipients represent the future nurses and educators the School of Nursing and Rennebohm Foundation strive to support. Recipients have diverse perspectives and life experiences. They are patient-focused, future-focused, and meet not only the immediate demands of the profession but are excited to serve the needs of a growing and diversifying Wisconsin.  

“There has been remarkable growth and positive changes from the School of Nursing, that’s exciting for the whole field of health care,” Gulbrandsen says. “I think the gift is seeing results.”