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Dr. Donna M. Nickitas is one of the advisory board members of the 2021 AL DÍA Top Nurses Forum & Awards event. Graphic: AL DÍA News. 
Dr. Donna M. Nickitas is one of the advisory board members of the 2021 AL DÍA Top Nurses Forum & Awards event. Graphic: AL DÍA News. 

Donna Nickitas, an advocate for amplifying the nursing profession

As the Dean of the Rutgers University School of Nursing, Dr. Nickitas is an important voice promoting the advancement, recognition and value of nurses.

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From the time she was a freshman in high school, Dr. Donna Nickitas knew she wanted to pursue a potential career in the nursing field.

That year, she volunteered to be a Red Cross volunteer at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in New York City. During the summer, she worked in hospitals and developed firsthand experience about the tasks and responsibilities of a nurse. 

At the end of that summer, Nickitas learned about a program for high school students interested in different areas of the nursing profession. She applied for the program the following summer and worked as a volunteer nurse for the remainder of her high school experience. 

“By the time I was done, I knew that I wanted to do what nurses did,” Nickitas said during an interview with AL DÍA. “I had an inside perspective because I assisted in the daily care of patients who were critically ill during my time when I worked at St. Vincent’s.”  

Nickitas was the first in her family to attend college, and did so during a time when the career options for women were more limited, especially for women whose families weren’t as financially stable.

Nonetheless, Nickitas felt confident enough in her knowledge and abilities to succeed and fulfill her goals.

“That experience at St. Vincent’s gave me an opportunity to say, ‘I can do this. I can make a difference in people’s lives in a very authentic and intimate way,’” she said. 

She had the opportunity to start out at a community college and earn an associate’s degree, before moving on to attend Stony Brook University and earn her bachelor’s in nursing two years later.

Upon graduation, Nickitas went to work as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force Nurse Corps, where she spent three years of active duty, stationed in Rapid City, South Dakota. After that, she spent time as a flight nurse at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

“I have been a nurse for more than 40 years and I can say, it’s been quite a journey,” said Nickitas.

Very early on in her career, Nickitas learned about the various influencing issues that compound the overall practice of nursing. 

“I began to realize that to have an impact, it was to understand the practice of nursing beyond direct patient care,” she said.

That understanding led her to take part in professional nursing organizations and student government while she was in grad school, and enhanced that work as a grassroots activist as she progressed throughout her career.

Nickitas is a member of the American Nurses Association; her honor society Sigma, Theta, Tau; the American Association of Colleges of Nursing; and the National League for Nursing. 

“I understand the importance of professional membership to amplify the voices of nurses and to be influential,” said Nickitas. 

“It's important to be an activist, but to really make change, you have to be closest where change happens,” she added. 

Nickitas has spent her career working towards that goal of creating positive change. 

“My policy work has been around advocacy, certainly at the patient and community level, but [also] at the local, regional and national level, to influence the professional nursing community to amplify our voices, and show that we really do make a difference,” she said. 

In July 2018, Nickitas was named the Dean of the Rutgers University School of Nursing in Camden. 

Since taking on that role, Dean Nickitas has put her boots on the ground, working to build trust within the community and build partnerships that can help those communities thrive.

“We realize that if you really want to have an impact, you have to be a good neighbor. In order to be a good neighbor, you have to get out in the neighborhood. And that's what we've been doing,” said Nickitas.

In addition, Nickitas called diversity “essential” within the nursing profession, describing it as a “moral imperative.”

“In academia, we have a moral obligation to ensure that that happens,” she said, noting scholarships and various student services that help recruit and retain the diverse student body at Rutgers. 

“We have to open doors and opportunities so that when we create a workforce, it’s truly representative of the populations that we will care for,” she added. 

Nickitas is a member of the advisory board for the upcoming AL DÍA Top Nurses Forum & Awards event taking place later this month, a distinction in which she said she is proud and honored to take part in. 

“I want to have a chance to give back to my profession in ways that are meaningful, and this is very meaningful to me.”

“It’s very special to recognize that AL DÍA is making it a priority to recognize the work and the contributions nurses make on a daily basis, wherever they are, and to take a moment to appreciate those contributions.”

The 2021 AL DÍA Top Nurses Forum & Awards will take place Wednesday, May 26, 2021 at 5:30pm. For ticket and registration information, click here

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