Growing up, Wallena Gould, now 52, wanted to be a nurse. But by the time she was 20, she was a mother on welfare and struggling to get her college degree at Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey.
Not having money for a car to travel to clinical training sites, “I ended up majoring in accounting,” Gould recalled. She took a job at a large accounting firm, but after a year, Gould, now married, told her husband that she wanted to go back to school to pursue her dream.
It took until 2002 before she earned her degree in nursing at Gloucester County College in Sewell, N.J. Her nursing career began in the operating room of Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia, where she first experienced nurse-delivered anesthesia. “No one really talked about that type of advanced role,” she said.
Gould kicked up her aspirations another notch and went back to La Salle University to get the advanced degree required to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist, or CRNA, one of the highest paid positions in nursing. Despite living in a city that was two-thirds minority, Gould, who is African-American, was one of only a few minority students in La Salle's program. And “there was no minority faculty,” she said.
The fact that Gould, today a nurse anesthetist at Main Line Endoscopy Centers in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., found few people of color in her program reflects a reality that has plagued the nursing profession for decades. Of the estimated 3 million nurses currently active in the U.S., just less than 25% are racial or ethnic minorities, despite those groups making up 38% of the general population.
The gap is even wider among advanced practice registered nurses. About 13% of APRNs are from an ethnic or racial minority, according to a 2016 report from the National Academy of Medicine.