Dr. Tarnia Newton Reflects on her Career and the State of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Nursing Education

March 1, 2023

During a national moment when racism has finally been recognized as a public health crisis, engaging in dialogue about ways to address issues of inequality in healthcare professions is of the utmost importance. Since colleges are at the forefront of providing training that can help eliminate disparities related to a patient’s race or ethnicity it’s especially critical to highlight the achievements of educators with an understanding of those goals.

In recognition of Black History Month, we reached out to University of Arizona College of Nursing faculty member Tarnia Newton, DNP, FNP-C to learn about her career, and her thoughts on the topic of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Dr. Newton began her career as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), before immediately going into the transition LPN-RN program at Miami Dade Community College.  She worked in critical care for many years before returning to college for her bachelor’s in nursing from Florida Atlantic University. 

We need to do better as a profession. We need to do better to serve our community, and because of that we really need to weave equity, justice, diversity and inclusion into every single cause, ever single action we are doing as nurses and create Jedi nurses to provide affirmative healthcare for all," ~ Tarnia Newton, DNP, FNP-C

It was at FAU that she was exposed to the theory of caring  by Boykin & Schoenhofer. “At FAU they really intertwined this theory throughout every class and essay with this philosophy truly shaping my nursing career in the way I practice with my patients today being authentically present for them at all times,” she says. It was at FAU that Dr. Newton was exposed to community engagement as a student, and Indigenous health and she states that it was these experiences that drives her passion today for   UArizona students to have experiences like these. “It was at FAU that I went to Cherokee nation and participated in various community programs.  It was life changing,” she says.

When Dr. Newton reflects on her educational experience it seems it was unique as compared to other nursing students of color. “I was located in South Florida, which was very diverse, because in Miami you have influences from the Caribbean, Latin America, South America, and Central America,” she says. “As a person of color, I always had people of color as faculty, and my classmates were very diverse, so I always felt very comfortable. I didn’t feel isolated.” Afterward, she attended the historically Black graduate college Charles R. Drew School of Medicine & Science in California, where she earned her Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), before obtaining her Doctor of Practice in Nursing (DNP) at Frontier Nursing University.

What led you to pursue a career in academia?

Honestly, I’ve always wanted to teach nursing. When I was in my master’s program a lot of fellow students said, ‘You know, Tarnia, you would be an amazing educator,’ because they always liked my presentations. I always taught within in the hospital setting for skills fairs, ACLS, BLS but officially did not get into higher academia until I completed her Doctorate in Nursing Practice starting at Galen College of Nursing in San Antonio, TX.  I look back on it now, realizing how diverse both the faculty and the student body were there compared to where I am here. And I truly feel it probably boils down to access creating programs that support diverse people and their lifestyles.

Do you agree with many public health experts that racism is a public health crisis?

I do agree that systemic and structural racism is at the core of health disparities. The Black Faculty Series recently had Ruja Benjamin as a speaker, and in her book “Viral Justice” she talks about weathering,  which is the repeated exposure of socioeconomic adversity, racism, and perpetual discrimination which in turn can harm health.  COVID 19 definitely shone a light on this.  If we had justice in our health care system, or justice overall, we wouldn’t have inequities. Once we do not have inequities, we will have more access and better outcomes.

How is UArizona Nursing addressing those issues?

As a college, we’re starting to move forward. We’re making small steps, but we definitely need to do more. We need to change our focus in the sense that we should be intertwining equity, diversity and inclusion throughout the curriculum and not isolating it to just one item. We need to embed it in our core classes and really unpack situations because even myself, after the COVID19 pandemic, had to really reflect on certain biases I might have. I look at it this way: if I myself, a woman of color, have to reflect, I think everyone within health care or here within the college might need to reflect on that as well. If we truly embedded it in our curriculums and truly had more community engagement activities with southern Arizona and  the Borderlands. I think than UArizona would be able to make a difference to connect students to diverse communities so biases are examined, assumptions challenged, and critical conversations are engaged to assist in the deconstruction of systemic inequity.

Tell us about a personal interaction that informed your thoughts on this subject.

When I was an ICU nurse, I had an indigenous patient of Cherokee descent.  She was just so distraught. She said, ‘I really believe in more traditional ways. I’m far away from Oklahoma, where I’m from.’ It just so happened that the week before I had been in the Cherokee nation, so for me, it was one of those moments where you get goosebumps. I was able to share with her my experiences and tell her I learned a word ‘Osiyo’ -- ‘Hello’ -- in her native language and tell her, ‘I was on your land last week.’ I had that moment with her where she felt comfortable, she felt seen, she felt heard, and connected with her land and she knew that I as a nurse was going to take very good care of her. From a Nurse Practitioner standpoint, it’s so important that patients see and hear people that look like them, or have very similar lived experiences as them, because it helps them heal and helps them be open with their providers.

What strategies can we use to improve disparities and create more situations like you’ve described?

Justice and equity need to be in focus. From a nursing perspective, we really need to create JEDI nurses – meaning Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Nurses need to become like Jedi warriors. We need to infuse that JEDI framework into nursing because we as nurses need to be those warriors to be able to advocate for our patients. That means being politically involved. It means being in community and really looking at the inequities. If we as nurses can become like Jedi warriors, we will improve our patients’ outcomes, we will improve the disparities and inequities, and health care will become more of a just landscape. We need to develop nurses with the capacity to transform communities by addressing inequity in health care practices.

Can you share some advice for students of color considering a career in nursing?

The fact is that only 20% of the nursing workforce is diverse. So, I would say, ‘We need you to make a change. We need your voices; we need your resilience; we need your experiences and stories.’ It makes a big difference to have different voices coming to the table.

Do you have hope for the future about our ability to broaden the workforce and improve patient outcomes?

I’m very hopeful. Small steps bring big rewards. We need to do better as a profession. We need to do better to serve our community, and because of that we really need to weave equity, justice, diversity and inclusion into every single cause, ever single action we are doing as nurses and create Jedi nurses to provide affirmative healthcare for all.