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David Álvarez-Sánchez and Wanda Nolasco are two of the 2022 AL DÍA Top Nurses' honorees. Photo: Harrison Brink/AL DÍA News.
David Álvarez-Sánchez and Wanda Nolasco are two of the 2022 AL DÍA Top Nurses' honorees. Photo: Harrison Brink/AL DÍA News.

Promoting a Diverse Nursing Pipeline

From a nursing student to a seasoned nursing professional, the field has an array of impactful individuals.

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When we think about the nursing profession, a lot may go into that thought. 

However, what can be agreed upon is the significant value nurses have in each of our individual and collective health.

Each year during the AL DÍA Top Nurses event, there is a mission of shining a light on the diverse men and women who serve in the trenches of nursing institutions. 

Promoting the exemplary contributions nurses make to their essential fields is paramount.

Take Wanda Nolasco, for example.

She is currently the vice president of patient services, and regulatory and compliance safety officer at The Behavioral Wellness Center at Girard.

With more than 20 years with the institution, and over 30 as a nurse professional in the field, she has been among those at the frontlines to address a multitude of health-related issues and crises throughout her career. 

From her career as a critical nurse, professor in nursing and research coordinator in Puerto Rico to various leadership positions with The Behavioral Wellness Center at Girard in Philadelphia, Nolasco has excelled in a variety of roles. 

Now take David Álvarez-Sánchez.

Currently, a rising junior nursing student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, he, too, has begun establishing himself as a leader in his own right. 

As the co-founder of a Hispanic organization at his former high school and research coordinator for the COVID TRACE (Testing, Resources, and Community Engagement) Project, Alvarez-Sanchez has shown an ability to make a positive impact despite his young age. 

While both are in very different stages of their lives and careers, they share the same desire to help others. 

It’s why they were selected as the Lifetime Achievement and Undergrad Student Leader Award recipients, respectively for the 2022 AL DÍA Top Nurses event. 

A Lifelong Passion

Compassion and service are two elements that Wanda Nolasco has always lived her life by. Born and raised on the east side of Puerto Rico, those two elements were staples. 

When asked how she developed those qualities, she said it came from her family.

“We all, one way or another…were always there for everybody,” she said. 

In Nolasco’s case, it helped guide her educational journey and later her career. 

“I realized that I wanted to help people,” she said. 

That realization led Nolasco to attend Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, where she studied to become a nurse. 

It was her belief that nursing would be the best way to combine her compassion and desire for service in a way that would be beneficial to communities. 

After earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing, Nolasco originally went to a critical care and ER unit. However, she soon realized that nursing services go far beyond ERs and ICUs.

When her mother began experiencing mental health challenges, Nolasco decided to return to school at Pontifical Catholic University and study psychiatric nursing and mental health. 

From there, she brought what she learned to another hospital in Puerto Rico, and helped build a new program there.

She later went into research, which later became the catalyst for her coming to the United States. 

In 2001, the formerly named North Philadelphia Health System (NPHS) went to Puerto Rico on a recruitment effort.

“I went, by chance, to do the interview and they recruited me,” said Nolasco.

From 2002, Nolasco has become among the most familiar faces in the Hispanic nursing community at what has since rebranded as The Behavioral Wellness Center at Girard.

“I grew up as a leader with the North Philadelphia Health System,” said Nolasco, adding that her time there is what increased her interest into the business and administration side of the field. 

This is what led her to complete her master’s degree in business administration with a concentration in health services from DeVry University.

Throughout her 20 years with The Behavioral Wellness Center, Nolasco has seen a lot and faced many challenges. The most recent years have been among the most challenging, she noted.

In 2016, the organization went into bankruptcy. Over the years, a lot went into navigating filing for bankruptcy.  

According to Nolasco, that’s what helped the organization rebuild itself with a more clear focus on drug, alcohol and behavioral services.

“We decided to rebrand ourselves, doing a service to the community to what is now one of the biggest pandemics other than COVID — the opioid pandemic,” said Nolasco. 

The Behavioral Wellness Center uses innovation to provide treatment services for individuals with substance use and mental health challenges.

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization was able to adapt and transition some of its existing units into COVID units, and provide additional services to those who need it. 

When asked about the most fulfilling aspect of the nursing field and the work she does, Nolasco kept it simple — waking up and seeing that she is able to help at least one person.

“Just to see somebody get better, or get an admission to be taken off the streets, or go home… that is my fulfillment,” she said. 

While shocked and surprised when she first learned of the honor of being the AL DÍA Top Nurses’ Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, it’s also been an opportunity to reflect on her journey and impact.

“Honestly, it made me realize that what I do everyday has a meaning,” said Nolasco. “It’s really joyful to see that some people see me that way. I don’t even realize. I do it because I love it.”

A Leader in the Making

David Álvarez-Sánchez is very early in his journey, but already has big plans for his own future as a nursing professional.

Currently a nursing student at UPenn, Álvarez-Sánchez knew what career he wanted to pursue in the eighth grade.

“I was fortunate to have a Career Day… and we had police officers and firefighters and a bunch of different [professions], but then we had a nurse practitioner come in, she was a psychiatric nurse practitioner who worked at a mental health facility, and I remember being like, ‘Wow, I’ve heard of a nurse, but I’ve never heard of a nurse practitioner,’” said Álvarez-Sánchez.

Her in-depth explanations and details about her work was very impressive to Álvarez-Sánchez, and served as a catalyst for his career choice.

“I’ve always said, my calling is to help people and I know you can do that in a bunch of different careers, but especially after doing my first clinical rotation this past semester in the spring. I just loved patient interaction and just being able to see and help people in their most vulnerable positions and just serve as a support system that not everyone gets to have in other ways,” he added. 

When asked about his goals, both his short and long term goals are clear. 

In the short-term, his goals are to complete his undergraduate degree and earn his licensure to become a registered nurse.

“Long-term, I really see myself hopefully being able to work in a variety of communities either through my clinical rotations or just once I’m a registered nurse,” said Álvarez-Sánchez. 

He also hopes to pursue higher education opportunities after earning his bachelor’s. 

To Álvarez-Sánchez, diversity is extremely important in Penn’s nursing program and within the field of nursing.

As a Latinx individual and male aspiring nurse, he represents two underrepresented groups in the field. 

“I think that no matter where you work, you're always going to come across patients who have different backgrounds, have different beliefs, different upbringings,” he said. “And being able to understand you might not necessarily relate, but trying to really put yourself in the person’s shoes… is really important.”

“If you have diverse nurses who understand, or might be able to relate a little bit more to the patient population, it makes it a lot easier for them to provide care that's really tailored to their experiences and the issues that they face,” he added. 

During the 2022 AL DÍA Top Nurses event, Álvarez-Sánchez will be awarded the Undergrad Student Emerging Leader Award.

When asked how he defines a leader, Álvarez-Sánchez said, “I would say that it's someone who's always willing to grow and always willing to learn,” he said.

To him, those are important qualities. 

“I also believe really strongly in the idea of your community, and the people that support you being able to help you become a leader, because without the people that support you, you're not really a leader… if you're just by yourself, there's no one to lead. And that is something that I think a lot of people tend to forget,” he added. 

While he will be receiving an individual honor, in his mind, his leadership is more impactful if others can advance further, particularly as a peer advisor within Penn’s School of Nursing.

“It’s really important to me to be able to let them know about the resources that exist out there… I think a lot of times as a minority, you might not be exposed to these resources or to different opportunities, and so I think just being able to serve the community and work to help the people that are in the community… I just want to be able to let others know about the things that are out there.”

“It’s great that I got the award, but I think it’s really important to just see how we can further everyone else, as well, and be able to see how everyone can get their foot in the door,” he added.   

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