Undergraduate Fellows Program nurtures future nurse leaders and scientists
Dr. Michael Bleich, director of the Undergraduate Fellows Program
Mary Appiah emigrated from Ghana to the U.S. and worked for nine years in property management before deciding to pursue an accelerated B.S. nursing degree at VCU. Alexandra Dahl earned dual degrees in psychology and anthropology from VCU, held various jobs, and traveled a bit before following her desire to return to VCU to attend nursing school. Duyen Phan left Vietnam to move to the U.S. and pursue a nursing degree at VCU in hopes of giving back to her community, especially Vietnamese who do not speak English.
Appiah, Dahl and Phan are among 11 stellar students, representing diverse backgrounds and aspirations, selected for this year’s cohort of the School of Nursing’s Undergraduate Fellows Program. Drawing more than 60 applicants, the highly competitive 24-month program offers a developmental learning experience to exceptional students while providing full in-state tuition assistance.
The students were carefully selected for their leadership and academic potential, said Michael Bleich, Ph.D., RN, FNAP, FAAN, director of the Langston Center for Innovation in Quality and Safety and the school’s Undergraduate Fellows Program.
“We were seeking students that demonstrate the attributes of being able to perform and function with a high level of scholarship but also have a passion for distinguishing themselves in terms of the impact they want to have in their career," Bleich said. “We ended up with extremely capable students that come into the program with different life experiences and perspectives.”
The program, launched in 2017, has evolved from its initial focus on grooming undergraduate students to assume varied leadership roles, serving as a pipeline for the next generation of nurse leaders. Three cohorts, each with four to five students, completed the initial program.
“The fellows program extended my learning beyond the classroom in countless ways,” said Laura Herring, a traditional B.S. student in the class of 2021 and fellow from last year's cohort, noting that she connected with leaders she would have never had the opportunity to meet.
“Each has taught me a different aspect of how to be a leader and a follower while also implementing change where it is needed,” she said.
For the 2020-2021 academic year, the program more than doubled its number of fellows and expanded its learning experience options from one to two tracks – both leadership and research. Through shared and track-specific seminars and experiences, students are socialized into the nursing discipline, expand their professional network and enhance work-related skills that better serve vulnerable populations when they pursue post-graduation clinical and academic opportunities, Bleich said.
In the leadership track, fellows complete a project aimed at refining leadership, management, and followership skills and abilities through the lens of social change. They also engage in a national student-led social justice initiative through the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.
In the research track, through the lens of inquiry fellows learn about refining methods to study complex issues, ask investigative questions, and explore the breadth of opportunities to lead change through science and contribute to evidence-based practice. They work with faculty on research projects by participating in research team meetings, study visits, data collection, and manuscript preparation, said Suzanne Ameringer, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, the Florence E. Elliott Professor, who leads the program’s research track.
“Participants can engage in research activities in the Biobehavioral Research Laboratory, such as assisting with processing specimens, and engage in research activities with the data services team, such as working with data sets,” she added.
Additionally, Bleich said that fellows are also matched with mentors who have aligned interests and possess diverse professional backgrounds.
“There was intentionality behind this mentor match process," Bleich said. "We want fellows to see role models that look like them and may have had similar life experiences. It’s going to make the program a richer experience.”
Once completing the program, fellows will have the skills to advance quickly in their careers.
“I have no doubt they will accelerate their careers by using the skills they are learning to influence patient care and advance nursing science in any organizational setting,” Bleich said.
According to Herring, the program gave her "life-changing skills and confidence in leadership that will stay with me for not only the rest of my career as a nurse but for a lifetime.”
The cohort for 2020-2021 includes the students below (pictured left to right on the welcome page in the same order), each sharing their gratitude for being selected.
Soma Aga, Accelerated B.S. Class of 2021
Hometown: Harrisonburg, Va.
Ethnically Kurdish, Soma believes her future nursing role is to ensure that underserved populations have access to health care, where she can properly advocate and care for patients. Her passion lies within women's health and women's nursing. She hopes to work in an environment that “allows me to bring positive change to women's lives.”
"I'm deeply humbled and honored to be selected as a fellow. I'm excited about everything the program has to offer!"
Tiara Bolden, Accelerated B.S. Class of 2021
Hometown: Chesapeake, Va.
Although she was born and raised in Virginia, Tiara’s family is originally from Mississippi. She earned a B.S. in psychology from VCU in May 2020 and is currently a research assistant while in nursing school. Her dream career involves impacting others, and nursing allows her to reach many people. She is passionate about helping others because she understands how important it is to have support through difficult times, aiding her family through their many chronic and acute conditions.
“I feel very fortunate to have been selected as a fellow. I am excited to learn, gain experience, and explore career opportunities.”
Grace Atkinson, Traditional B.S. Class of 2022
Hometown: Chester, Va.
Born and in the Richmond metro area, Grace is incredibly passionate about psychology, health care equity, and providing holistic patient care. Her current career goals are to work in either psychology or oncology for a few years and eventually become a psychiatric nurse practitioner.
“I am incredibly excited and blessed to have been selected to be a part of such a unique program, and I am looking forward to working with the incredible faculty, staff, and students!”
Duyen Phan, Traditional B.S. Class of 2022
Hometown: West Point, Va.
Duyen, who speaks both English and Vietnamese, immigrated to the US from Vietnam. She decided to go into nursing because she wants to give back to her community, especially to help the non-English speaking Vietnamese community.
“I am so excited to be a part of the fellowship program! I am excited to meet and get to know others in the program. I am also excited to learn how to become a better leader in my field of study and be able to build my network from my time in the program!”
Kelsey Thomas, Accelerated B.S. Class of 2021
Hometown: South Boston, Va.
Kelsey graduated from The College of William & Mary in December of 2019 with a B.S. in kinesiology and a minor in psychology. Throughout her first undergraduate experience, she worked as an EMT for a patient transport company and as a medical assistant at an otolaryngology office. The experiences helped with her career development. Ultimately, she chose a nursing career to further educate, empathize and advocate for patients and their families.
“I am humbled and honored to have been selected as an undergraduate fellow. I am confident that this incredible opportunity will allow me to flourish in ways I could never have imagined.”
Mary Appiah, Accelerated B.S. Class of 2021
Hometown: Lynchburg, Va.
Born in Ghana as the last of five kids, Mary completed her college degree in Ghana's premier science and technology university, graduating with honors. She emigrated to the United States in 2010 to pursue the American dream and presently lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, with her family of four, including two boys ages 1 and 5. Having worked in property management for nine years, she has a passion for providing an outstanding care experience for others. This passion eventually led to a health care career where she hopes to “truly fulfill my dreams of bringing hope and smiles to patients in need of care and healing.”
“I’m extremely honored to have been selected out of many applicants to be a fellow. As a budding nurse, I am excited about the experience ahead and thankful for the opportunity to realize my full potential.”
Alexandra Dahl, Accelerated B.S. Class of 2021
Hometown: Fayetteville, N.C.
Alexandra earned dual degrees in psychology and anthropology from VCU. In the years that followed her education, she held various jobs and traveled broadly. Each new opportunity led to her realization that nursing would be the best way to combine her love of caring for people and her enthusiasm for learning and understanding. As she progresses through the next chapter of her education, she aims to become a strong patient advocate who is creative and versatile, and involved in research.
“I am so excited to be selected as an undergraduate research fellow and look forward to contributing to the field of nursing.”
Kayla Boyd, Accelerated B.S. Class of 2021
Hometown: Colonial Heights, Va.
Kayla graduated from Virginia Tech in 2019 with a degree in human nutrition, foods and exercise, and a minor in leadership and social change. She said she is excited to care for patients both physically and emotionally and is drawn to Labor & Delivery, noting that pregnancy and the first few years of life have been her favorite subjects to learn about, and she “would be honored to serve and care for patients in these phases of life.”
“Being selected as a fellow is truly such an honor. With a passion for learning about leadership and reflecting on/pursuing this knowledge, I could not be more excited!”
Mackenzie Tabler, Accelerated B.S. Class of 2021
Hometown: Glen Allen, Va.
Mackenzie earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from Longwood University. After graduating, she obtained her CNA, and since then has been working at Parham Doctor’s Hospital as a patient care technician on the Inpatient Rehab floor. Her future nursing goals are to further her education and either become a nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist.
“I was beyond thrilled and honored to learn of my selection for the fellowship. I look forward to becoming immersed in nursing research and engaging in the amazing opportunities of this fellowship.”
Ann Nguyen, Traditional B.S. Class of 2021
Hometown: Oakton, Va.
Originally from Vietnam, Ann is double majoring in nursing and psychology at VCU. She tutors at the Campus Learning Center on the Monroe Park Campus.
“I am so grateful to have been selected as a fellow! I look forward to all the learning and networking opportunities the program will offer, and I couldn’t be more excited to begin this journey!"
Bronwyn Nagle, Accelerated B.S. Class of 2021
Hometown: Camden, Del.
Bronwyn earned a biology degree from Old Dominion University. She hopes to pursue a career in emergency medicine/trauma and looks forward to pursuing higher education soon after she gets settled as a nurse.
“I am extremely blessed and grateful for the opportunity to be a research fellow for VCU. I can't wait to start building my career with the help of the other fellows and the mentors.”