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Emily Izzo, U of U Health.
The Experience That Changed My Life
Senior Nursing Director Rita Aguilar shares how a pivotal medical experience at the age of 17 sparked her interest in becoming a nurse. Years later, Rita is applying the same level of compassion and support she received from that experience to encourage others in seeking a career in health care and diversifying the medical field.

ometimes people just need to be seen. It breaks my heart when I think about the people who work hard and contribute every single day, and still feel like they're invisible, like they're not valued. But every job in this organization has value. There is so much untapped talent. What prevents us from seeing it? Are we walking past people who could change the world?

That’s why I’m sharing my story. 

Finding my way

Often, when you hear nurses talking about what drew them to the career, they have other family members or others within their close circle who are in health care. That certainly wasn't my story.

Growing up, I had an interest in science, and I used to think it would be great to be a physician. But I didn't know a single person who was a nurse or a physician. Then at seventeen, I became pregnant and got married. My situation did not bode well for a bright future—and yet, it was my positive birth experience that inspired me to become a nurse. 

At a routine OB visit, I was diagnosed with Pregnancy Induced Hypertension and Preeclampsia. I was told to go directly to the hospital. After failed attempts to lower my blood pressure with medication, my baby was delivered by cesarean section. I was terrified because I was only 33 weeks along in my pregnancy.  

That experience changed everything—from the compassion shown by the student nurse who held my hand when they were placing the epidural; to the labor and delivery nurse who talked me through it; and all of the other nurses who helped me recover while not judging me for being a teen mother. The nursing staff took the time to explain to my husband and my parents what was going on with me medically. They reassured me and my family that my newborn son would survive and do well. Despite the unexpected and scary experience, I felt very, very supported.

My tiny, four-pound baby stayed in the NICU for about three weeks. During one visit, my baby started spitting up and choking, and I panicked. The NICU nurse took me aside, taught me what to do, and reassured me that I was able to competently care for my tiny baby. I will never forget that nurse. When I left the hospital, I told my husband, "I wanna be that, I want to be part of something that makes a difference. I want to be able to care for others, and help others feel capable." 

Helping others find their way

My research for my doctorate degree in nursing practice was on improving the health of our vulnerable populations. As part of that research, I focused on increasing the diversity of Utah’s nursing workforce. Expanding access to health care roles has to start in communities of color where diverse kids live. And it has to start early in their formative years, or at least in middle school and high school. 

That’s why I’ve spent a lot of time working with younger groups to get them interested in health care careers. I've talked to young mothers at Horizonte School to reassure them, it is possible to achieve their goals despite teen pregnancy. I’ve encouraged diverse CNA students at Ogden High School to consider nursing as a future goal. I’ve attended health career events at Salt Lake Community College and traveled to engage with students on the Ute reservation. I’ve worked with leaders at Granite School District to impress upon them how important it is that high school guidance counselors and science teachers reach out to diverse students to encourage them to consider health sciences and nursing as a profession. 

That act of showing up and being present is important, because as I look back at my formative years, it was engagement with my junior high school principal, and a science teacher, that was pivotal. They took me aside, expressed curiosity about my interests, and encouraged me. Those experiences helped to build my level of self-efficacy and helped me see college as something that was doable.

Connecting my past, present, and future

My grandparents emigrated from Mexico. I am second-generation on my mom’s side. My parents were both transplants from Colorado who met here in Utah. In 1955, they bought a tiny, starter house in Ogden, and my mother still lives in it to this day. I grew up in a very diverse, low socioeconomic neighborhood. But it wasn’t until the eighth grade that I realized that other people lived very differently than my family and friends. 

That was when my junior high closed and we were bussed up to a school on the east bench. A diverse school merged with a non-diverse, more affluent school. It was an uncomfortable time of trying to fit in, while seeing for the first time the vast differences of socio-economic status. If not for my junior high principal and science teacher taking an interest in me, I might not have developed the confidence to consider careers that require a college education. 

I was married the summer before my senior year of high school. We had a rocky start and really struggled financially. I quickly realized that I needed stability. 

It was then that I fell back on the inspiration of that positive birth experience and my desire to be a nurse. But I didn't even know how to go about it, so I just pulled open the yellow pages and searched Weber State University and found academic counseling and admissions. I made phone calls, went up to talk to someone, and started the process of going to nursing school.

The nursing program had a very long wait list. I was turned down the first time but that was fine because I was in the process of taking prerequisites. When I finally got in, one of the first things I noticed was the lack of diversity—there was just me, one African-American student, and a few male students. That was it. And so began the process of trying to fit in and feel confident in my ability to complete the nursing program. 

I have a faint memory of a white student who took me aside one day and told me, "You know, the only reason you're here is because they have a quota.”  While her comment was boldly direct, I experienced other microaggressions during my nursing education. And while there was little diversity among my peers, I noticed that most of the people we cared for during clinical rotations were people of color. 

Do the hard work

This organization was founded in 1965, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. We're now 55 years, and while we have made strides with leadership and faculty diversity, we still have a long way to go to more closely match the diversity of the communities we serve. We are fortunate to work for such a progressive organization, that has the courage to name systemic racism, and is willing to invest the necessary time, energy, and resources to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion for all. It's going to be a journey, but in this momentous time, there are things we can all do. 

Engage in learning. Discrimination isn’t always an intentional act. Examine whether or not any of your implicit biases might be hindering your engagement with diverse people with whom you work. Just pause and consider it—and then invest in learning. As a leader, your lack of engagement might be negatively impacting their opportunities and career development. There are diverse people who are waiting to contribute more, and just need somebody to see them and show them the way. 

Don’t wait for annual reviews. Don’t wait for annual performance evaluations or even scheduled one-on-ones. Demonstrate curiosity by asking staff about their personal lives and journeys. We have a lot of talented staff who have come here from other countries where they worked in different roles than they do here. As leaders, we need to find ways to help people bridge their knowledge and experience from previous roles so they can work at that same level and capacity here.

Start the conversation. Conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion do not need to be overly structured. The conversations in my own spheres of influence at work have started spontaneously. As leaders, it is our responsibility to start those conversations if they aren’t already happening. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it's a must right now. If you like more structure, consider adding it as a standing agenda item for some meetings.

Start with diversity. When starting a project one of the first things project managers look at is the cost of the project. We need to get into the habit of thinking about diversity in the same way. Consider the importance of diversity at the very beginning of a project. Ideally, project teams should include diverse team members. But if not, then at least seek feedback from diverse staff or faculty to identify gaps or suggestions for improvement.

*Originally published September 3, 2020


Rita Aguilar

Senior Nursing Director, University of Utah Health

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