Project OPEN to help nursing students to the finish line

Lavette Williams Editor-in-Chief [email protected]

The University of North Alabama’s Anderson College of Nursing will be accepting scholarship applications through March 15 to be a part of the Project OPEN program.

Project OPEN (Opportunities for Entry into Nursing) is a nursing scholarship program that assists under-represented and economically disadvantaged students in completing their Bachelor’s Degree. 

The scholarship program is supported with a 4-year grant by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. From HRSA, the College of Nursing received a $2.4 million grant that provides scholarship and academic support to these students.  

“[Identifying nursing students who have a financial need and are minorities] are the two big deals. [We want] to identify our potential nurses, help them through the program, retain them and graduate them,” said Rachel Winston, associate professor and director for Project OPEN. “[However, Project OPEN] is a little different than most scholarships in that it doesn’t just give students money. It’s a scholarship program, so we give money and expectations we have of the students too.”

Wintson said that it takes more than money to graduate a student, so instead of only giving them only financial support, Project OPEN also gives them the skills and the resources to be successful in the UNA nursing program.

“Some students need the combination of resources so that they can reach their own goals,” Winston said. “[So] when they take those hardships out of the way, they could [obtain their goal] when otherwise, [they] could not. Maybe they don’t have the best study techniques, if [Project OPEN] could give them what they need there maybe that 4.0 [they want] is obtainable when otherwise it may not have been.”

In addition to awarding freshmen and sophomores with 9 credited hours of tuition and fees, and juniors and seniors with 15 credited hours, students a part of Project OPEN also receive mentors and student advisors.

Winston explained that there is an “old school saying” that nurses eat their young. She said that although this is a horrible expression, it, in some cases, has proven to be true. 

“In the profession of nursing, you do [eat your young] because you literally are the difference between someone’s life being saved and that not being the case,” Winston said. “[Project OPEN] sets nurses up for the nursing profession. Going into a profession where [students] have to immediately know what they’re doing, they have to already know what resources are available to them – how to figure it out, who to call on, what a mentor is, how do I get that after I graduate. They’re already living it in Project OPEN.” 

Many of the senior-level students, who serve as the Project OPEN mentors, leave to work as nurses, but they do not forget about the people they have trained. The connections through the program can help students get jobs in the workplace after college. 

Associate Dean of Nursing Tera Kirkman said that Project OPEN is more like a family because the College of Nursing gets to know their students and spends more time with them. 

“You identify [students] needs, their strengths, and the things that are important for them to improve upon in order to be successful at UNA,” Kirkman said. “A lifelong mentor – that’s one of the things we encourage. Not only to have peer mentors and faculty mentors, but a professional mentor that someone who is in a position of where [the nursing student] would like to be in the next four or five years. What project open does is helps students to know that faculty supports them.”

In order to get into Project OPEN, students have to complete an application with a letter of reference and an essay, complete FAFSA for financial need requirements and participate in an interview process. 

Kirkman said students who want to be a part of this program have to be serious and committed to nursing because it is not that everyone can get in. 

“The support that [Project OPEN] has received from across campus has been overwhelming,” Kirkman said. “It’s not just nursing involved in getting nursing students to the finish line; it’s been student financial services, the Office of Diversity and Institutional Equity and the admissions office. It’s taken a collective team to really get Project OPEN off the ground in helping these students achieve success, and that’s the beauty of it.”

Although 2020 is the last year of Project OPEN’s grant cycle with HRSA, Winston has worked with a team of writers to reapply for another grant.

“We actually submitted the proposal this past Tuesday and we’re just waiting to hear back,” Winston said. “I feel very optimistic. It has been around for a very, very long time, but just by different names. Before I was the director, [it] was Dr. Kirkman and four years before that, Dr. Ernestine Davis. We’ve not ever had a lapse for the last 16 years, give or take, so I don’t expect to have a lapse now.”

Winston said Project OPEN was the brainchild of Ernestine Davis, a professor emerita of nursing at the University of North Alabama, who was just a pioneer for making sure minority students had a voice and support they needed on UNA’s campus. Before she started up Project OPEN, Davis was responsible for the Presidential Mentors Academy (PMA).  

“I’m a UNA graduate,” Winston said. “I went through UNA’s nursing program and I did not have PMA or Project OPEN, so when I handle this program, I attack it the way I had wished I had attacked the program [if I were in it]. It’s not to say it didn’t exist then. I was one of those students who [focused on studying and getting good grades]. How much easier [it could have been] and how much less stress I could have had if I would have had this kind of resources.”