NORTH DARTMOUTH — The UMass Dartmouth College of Nursing has been awarded a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to diversify the nursing workforce in the New Bedford region over the next four years. More than $500,000 will be used for need-based aid for area students who want to pursue nursing as a profession.

The UMass Dartmouth team, led by Dr. Barbara Weatherford, will be joined by colleagues from Bristol Community College (BCC) as they study admission practices at each campus and identify and recruit a qualified applicant pool that mirrors the demography of the region. BCC has nursing programs in Fall River and New Bedford.

UMass Dartmouth spokesman John Hoey told WBSM News this is the second nursing workforce diversity program the university has undertaken through HRSA support. He said the initial program was designed to reach out to middle school and high school students through the university's Upward Bound program, and that this new effort significantly expands upon that groundwork.

"It's going to be focused on New Bedford," he said. "We're working on developing a system of outreach, getting into middle schools and high schools in the area, especially in New Bedford, to let young kids know that the nursing profession is a potential career for them, and to excite them about entering the health care field, especially the nursing field. The field really needs to be diversified to make sure the best quality healthcare is being provided for people."

This project focuses on New Bedford due to the city's changing demographics, now estimated at 16.7 percent Hispanic and 6.4 percent Black/African American (US Census, 2015 estimated). The goal is to bring nursing enrollment in line with these demographic trends by promoting nursing as a career and supporting admitted students throughout their college career so they graduate on time and fully prepared to excel at regional hospitals and other health care organizations.

One major objective of the project is to develop holistic admissions at both campuses, a strategy used in medical and dental schools to ensure that talented students from diverse backgrounds are identified, recruited and supported.

"This is a practice that's been adopted by medical schools and dental schools around the country, but not so much by nursing schools," Hoey said. "The idea is that during the admissions process, it's not just simply judging an applicant based on a test score, a standardized test score or a grade. It's looking at them as a human being, looking at their academic achievement obviously but also taking into account their life experienec, and their potential to thrive as a nursing student."

Hoey also said it will ensure that the nursing workforce is reflective of the community it is serving.

"We want to let them know it's possible to come to UMass Dartmouth, or maybe start at Bristol Community College and then come to UMass Dartmouth," Hoey said. "They're from the area, they go to college in the area, and then they graduate from here and end up working in hospitals, doctor's offices and clinics throughout the area. It's a terrific way to keep talent in the region."