To Esita Patel and Alasia Ledford, the Hillman Scholars Program in Nursing Innovation is not a traditional educational experience, it’s a pathway to success. For them, the program provides a way to advance, a space that encourages ingenuity and mentorship, and access to opportunities they would not have otherwise had.

With that in mind the School of Nursing is pleased to announce the receipt of renewal funding for the Hillman Scholars Program in Nursing Innovation through 2022. UNC is one of only two schools of nursing in the United States to receive a second award from the Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation. Through this award, the School of Nursing distinguishes itself as an institution that is both innovative and creative in its approach to preparing PhD nurse researchers and scientists for the future.

“Nurses prepared in an integrated BSN-PhD program advance more quickly through their educational experience, which allows them to launch a research career early, and to have greater impact on health care. Support received through the Hillman Foundation gives the School expanded opportunities to cultivate scholars’ preparation as they develop as researchers,” said Dr. Cheryl Jones, Director of the Hillman Scholars Program at UNC. “This award also allows us to expand the number of PhD-prepared nurse scientists that enter the workforce, and positively impact health care locally and nationally.”

Esita Patel

The Hillman Scholars Program at UNC provides a seamless educational track that bridges the traditional boundaries between undergraduate and doctoral level programs. Students who are accepted to the highly competitive program embark on an integrated plan of study that focuses on both clinical practice and research. They work closely with mentors beginning in the undergraduate program and throughout the PhD program, which promotes scholars’ development. The program also emphasizes the development of scholars as leaders who will become the next generation of nurse researchers to realign health care to become more effective, patient-centered, accessible, equitable, and affordable.

The renewal award will allow UNC’s Hillman Scholars Program to continue growing by bringing on new scholars, adding four a year for the life of the award. Jones said that the ultimate goal of the program is to prepare nurses for a long career in research to design a health care system that works.

This award helps to fund research practicums and seminars that focus on innovations, a cornerstone of the Hillman Program. The award also allows the program to continue addressing problems in care delivery, helping nurses develop an entrepreneurial mindset, and implementing new models of care that put the patient first.

Alasia Ledford

But one of the things Jones is most excited about is that the grant renewal will support the creation of the much-anticipated Hillman Hub, dubbed the H-Hub. This “space” will foster scholars’ knowledge of research and innovation and aims to create immersive experiences that engage scholars in various aspects of research, including collaboration, team science, and mentorship.

Ledford said she is excited about the renewal because it provides additional support for professional, research, and leadership development.

“I think it will also help further our research and our ability to network,” said Ledford.

And for Patel, the Hillman Scholars Program has come as a stress relief.

“It’s formalized a lot of the financial things, like money for books, travel, and supplies.”

For both of them, though, it has provided the opportunity to pursue a PhD, without having to worry about finances, and to focus strictly on their PhD studies. Studies that are undoubtedly difficult and rigorous, said Patel, but that ultimately represent an incredible opportunity.

Cheryl Jones
Dr. Cheryl Jones

And just as it provides an opportunity to Patel and Ledford that they feel they wouldn’t otherwise have, it provides the same to the School of Nursing.

“Because of this award we’ve been able to build this community of scholars that is like a family. Our scholars support one another, care about one another, are committed to helping each other succeed,” said Jones.

Patel and Ledford exemplify this sentiment.

“You become a part of this great community of scholars, and it’s something I thought I would never have in my life,” said Patel. “So many people rooting for you and believing in you makes you believe you’re capable of achieving greatness someday.”

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