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Building community for Black nursing students

Building community for Black nursing students: Introducing the Queen’s chapter of the Canadian Black Nursing Alliance

It’s no secret that working in and studying healthcare these days is challenging. Adding to this challenge is the isolation someone may experience when you feel like you don’t belong or are a part of the community.  

Enter Gernique Dondji. She is a fourth-year nursing student who has dedicated herself to building community among Black nursing and health sciences students throughout her time at Queen’s. She spearheaded the formation of the Queen’s chapter of the Canadian Black Nursing Alliance (CBNA) which will host its first speaker event later this month.  

“In my first year, one of the upper-year Black nursing students made a point to meet me and say hi during orientation, and I thought that was really nice,” says Dondji. “She checked in with me throughout the year, and because of that experience I wanted to do that for other students.” In her second year, she joined the QSuccess mentoring program to help first-year students adjust to life at Queen’s, eventually becoming a senior mentor to 20 others in the program.  

Seeking and building community have always been priorities for Dondji, and when she began looking at forming a specific club for Black nursing students, she discovered the CBNA – a relatively new non-profit organization that serves to advance Canadian Black nurses through empowerment, mentorship, and advocacy. “They want to create a voice for Black nurses in Canada and I saw they had academic chapters so felt that would be a good fit here,” she says. “I knew I needed to do this.”   

Soon after that discovery, CBNA reached out to her through Instagram about starting a chapter and that got the ball rolling.  

Through last fall she worked with the QHS Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Indigeneity office to put together a budget proposal and also started making connections with the Nursing Students’ Society and Black Medical Students’ Association as well as other Black nursing students about joining the club. She pitched the idea to Dr. Erna Snelgrove-Clarke, Vice-Dean, QHS and Director, School of Nursing, and Laurie Gedke-Kerr, Interim Associate Director, Undergraduate Programs, School of Nursing, who were both enthusiastic about the idea and agreed to fund the club. “I want to thank them and the School for supporting this; they were receptive to the idea right away,” she adds. 

When asked why she wanted to start the CBNA Queen’s chapter, Dondji says that at a place like Queen’s where the population is predominantly white, many students of colour don’t feel like they belong and are less likely to seek help in their studies or take a leadership role. “I want them to know that they do belong here and deserve to be here,” Dondji explains. “I hope the CBNA chapter can better support them so they feel they can access the resources they need to excel at Queens.”   

To start, the CBNA chapter will host regular social ‘meet and greet’ events to help build community. “We know clinicals can be tough so having someone who relates to you, and understands, and can help share some tips and resources on how to transition through that experience can really help,” Dondji says. The club will also host a “Black Voices in Nursing” speaker series with the first event being held February 10.  

The online panel event will feature CBNA founder and director Ovie Onagbeboma and Queen’s PhD student and nurse practitioner Pauline Bleah-Neuwon talking about how they have built successful careers despite experiencing racism and other challenges in their field. This event is free and open to anyone to attend. The follow-up event on March 3 focuses on Black voices in healthcare and is open for registration to anyone in the QHS community. 

Even though Dondji is graduating this year, she plans to continue working with the CBNA chapter in an advisory capacity to help build a mentor program pairing Black nursing students with Black nursing professionals starting in September. Beyond that, she is hoping to pursue a nursing career in maternal health and then continue her education to become a nurse practitioner. Her ultimate goal is to start an NGO in her native Cameroon to educate medical professionals in maternal and infant health to help improve the birthing experience and infant mortality rate in that country.  

“I’m excited that we’re at this point. Learning about other Black healthcare professionals and meeting them is important because when you hear their stories, you understand that if they can do this, I can do this.”  

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