Elias Provencio Vasquez

Elias Provencio Vasquez stands by a simulation hospital bed in the new health sciences building.

Elias Provencio-Vasquez first became interested in nursing when he was 16, washing dishes at a hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., where he grew up.

Twenty-one years later, he became the first Hispanic male in the United States to earn a doctorate in nursing.

And in 2009, Provencio-Vasquez, age 56, was made dean of the School of Nursing at the University of Texas at El Paso, becoming the first Hispanic male to lead a nursing school.

Provencio-Vasquez sees it as a sort of homecoming.

He was born in El Paso, and moved with his family to Phoenix when he was 6.

This year, Provencio-Vasquez oversaw the 35-year-old nursing school's big move - from its off campus location at 1101 N. Campbell - to the $60-million Health Sciences and School of Nursing Building on the UTEP campus.

Last week, UTEP held the grand opening of the 130,000-square-foot building that the nursing school will share with the College of Health Sciences.

The building has labs, classrooms, research space and a 16,000-square-foot simulation center where students train in "real-life" scenarios. More than 1,000 nursing and pre-nursing students are enrolled. The average starting salary for a nurse in El Paso is $45,000; for a nurse practitioner, $80,000.

Before taking the position at UTEP, Provencio-Vasquez was associate dean of nursing and health studies at the University of Miami. He's published more than 40 papers and is the principal investigator of the Hispanic Health Disparities Research Center, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Provencio-Vasquez sat down with El Paso Inc. amidst that new building smell of the Health Sciences and School of Nursing facility, and talked about new ways of educating nurses, how Fort Bliss has boosted faculty recruitment, and why the nursing shortage has temporarily waned.

Q: Are more men becoming nurses?

I went to nursing school in the late 70s, so there were still very few men in nursing. In fact, there were only two men in my class. But the times have changed, and there are more men going into nursing.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Johnson and Johnson Company have really made progress in advertising and marketing that nursing is a great profession.

Finally, men are realizing it is a great profession, not only for the stability of having a job, but also because the responsibility and accountability of being a nurse is very exciting.

We are very proud that 28 percent of our nursing students here at UTEP are male, which is double the national average.

Q: Other nursing schools in El Paso have said they also have a lot of male students. What's driving that?

Certainly having a dean and an assistant dean who are male and are very visible in this community really promotes that men are choosing nursing as a profession.

Also, about 25 percent of our faculty is male, which is also double if not triple the national average. That has a lot to do with Fort Bliss. We have a lot of male faculty from Fort Bliss that are retired from the armed forces.

Q: How does this new building help with the education of nurses at UTEP?

We were located in what was the old dormitory building for the Hotel Dieu School of Nursing, which is no longer there. The space there was very limited in terms of classrooms. Simulation labs were made in modified classrooms, and the equipment and supplies were very outdated. But we did the best that we could.

Just being a part of the main campus was something that we really missed, being part of that whole UTEP spirit. I find it very exciting to see our students walking around campus in their uniforms.

We need to bring to mind that nursing education has really changed very little since the 1950s in terms of how we educate our nursing students. But one of the things that has happened here at UTEP is we moved into this beautiful new building, where we not only have classrooms that have the latest technology to teach students, but also have a state-of-the-art simulation lab, which is the largest in the Southwest, if not the United States, having more than 50 beds. We have the opportunity to lay the groundwork to really change the way we educate our students.

Q: When you say "change the way we educate our students," change in what way?

With the simulation lab, the scenarios, the exercises, we really prepare students for their clinical rotations differently than we did in the past.

For example, one of the things we are doing here at UTEP that's very innovative is called Hospital Day. It is where students actually take care of each other as a nurse or a patient for a six-hour shift and go through the whole day of being responsible and accountable for a patient, and they learn that here before they actually go to the hospital.

Q: I understand that some in El Paso thought the nursing school should have moved to the Medical Center of the Americas, instead of the UTEP campus.

I'm not sure. Since I just arrived last year, I am not sure what that whole idea was. All I know is that, when I arrived, the building was under construction to move the school here.

Q: How many students are enrolled?

We currently have about 520 undergraduate students and another 400 to 450 pre-nursing students. So we are pretty much at 1,000 students interested in becoming nurses here at UTEP. Then we have another 250 students in our graduate programs.

We also just started our doctorate in Nursing Practice this fall and have eight students in that program.

Q: Is the plan to grow that number?

There is always a vision for growing your school of nursing, but certainly the challenge for us is clinical availability for our students in terms of the hospitals here and faculty.

There is a faculty shortage, and finding the faculty to teach our students is a challenge. Our goal is to increase our enrollment by 10 to 20 students a year for the next couple years.

Q: Is faculty recruitment the primary challenge moving forward?

Recruiting nursing faculty from outside of El Paso, senior nursing faculty that are doing research, is a challenge. As you know, we are on our journey for tier-one status, and it is very important that the nursing school be a key player in that journey, recruiting senior faculty who will come and do research in this community.

Our master's prepared faculty members are getting their doctorates. When I arrived here, there were 12 master's prepared faculty members who were in doctoral programs. Four have graduated and two more are going to graduate in spring.

Increasing the education of our faculty is certainly a priority, and we have really had support of our clinical partners to do that.

Q: What enticed you away from the beach in Miami?

I have family here and El Paso is a great community. People are very friendly. I was never much of a beach person anyway. I grew up in Phoenix - there's no beach there.

Miami was nice and I met a lot of great people and had a lot of great experiences, but this was a big move for me. I love to teach. I love to be part of a school that really has a vision to move forward and do things differently and really educate the next generation of nurses.

Q: How do you get nurses out of the hospitals to teach, when pay in academia is so much lower?

It has been very enlightening to me that there are nurses who work in hospitals who really do want to come to work for UTEP's School of Nursing. They enjoy teaching and they enjoy our students. Some of them still have full time jobs at a hospital but can afford to work with us one day a week as a clinical faculty.

You are absolutely right. In terms of compensation, there is a difference between practicing as a nurse and being a faculty member, but there are a lot of people who decide that it is their passion and the money is really secondary.

Q: Are the hours better and more stable? Is that another draw to teach?

If you are a nurse in a hospital, you have a shift to work and you can't leave the hospital, but there is a lot of flexibility being a faculty member.

Q: How many are on the faculty at the School of Nursing now?

Right now, there are 29 full-time faculty members and another 40 part-time faculty members who teach online for us or do a lot of our clinical rotations.

Q: In El Paso, nursing programs are offered at Texas Tech, El Paso Community College, Anamarc College, and by various online schools. How does UTEP's nursing school fit into all that?

First of all, what is different about the UTEP School of Nursing is our history. We have history with the Hotel Dieu School of Nursing.

A matter of fact, this weekend we had a nursing celebration where there were five graduates from the Hotel Dieu School of Nursing Class of 1961. They came together to celebrate our rich history that goes back to the Sisters of Charity, who created the hospital and school.

In terms of the other schools of nursing in this community, there are plenty of students to go around and people should have choices of what school of nursing fits their needs and their lifestyle.

Q: Does UTEP work closely with EPCC?

We work very closely with them to make sure that their students can make a seamless transition into our program. We have a RN to BSN program specifically designed for community college nursing graduates so they can get their bachelor's degree.

Q: Is there still a nursing shortage?

Nationally, there really isn't, because of the economic times right now. I do have some colleagues across the country, for example, in Boston or Philadelphia, that tell me of nurses who are being laid off, very few, but nonetheless being laid off, which has not happened in many, many years.

And it is because many nurses who once worked part time are working full time, nurses who have retired may have returned to work, and those who had decided to leave nursing to raise a family have decided to come back.

I know, right now, nursing students from the university I came from in Miami are challenged to find jobs right after graduation, whereas before they would have job offers even before they graduated.

In El Paso, what I hear from my clinical partners is that they are still hiring. Once the economy moves onward and upward, this is going to become a major issue, because once people start retiring or going part time again, there is going to be a huge nursing shortage. Nurse educators are forecasting as well as planning for that day when our economy turns around.

Q: El Paso graduates are still finding jobs then?

Absolutely. With our new children's hospital and other hospitals that are growing their capacity, our students are still finding jobs here in El Paso.

Q: What about the number of applicants? Are as many students applying as are being accepted?

We get about 200 or 250 applicants per semester, and right now we only accept 90 students per semester and another 50 for our fast track.

Q: Are many of the applicants from El Paso?

Yes. We really reach out to our magnet schools as well as our high schools to get students excited about coming into nursing.

Q: The UTEP School of Nursing was recently named the No. 1 nursing school in the U.S. in awarding bachelor's degrees to Hispanics. How important is it to increase diversity in nursing?

It's very important because we take care of a diverse population. The more diversity you place in a profession, the more diverse and culturally relevant care you can give.

Right now, we have eight students in our new doctorate of Nursing program - seven of those are Hispanic. So we are not only contributing to the diversity of nursing, but also to those nurses who have a doctorate.

We were No. 3 when I arrived and, actually, Miami Dade College and Florida International University, which are located in Miami, were No. 1 and No. 2.

Q: So that No. 1-ranking followed you here.

Well, I'm not sure if that is the case. My goal when I arrived was that, in three years, we would be No. 1, and we achieved that goal in one year.

Q: How did that change come about in a year?

The faculty we have recruited are the best and the brightest and have really committed to make sure that our students are successful. So graduating more students has really helped us.

We are very different than we were a year ago because of the faculty and staff commitment, and we are going to do some great things. I am very confident.

Q: What is the attrition rate?

In terms of graduation, it is less than 7 percent. I'm not sure exactly what it was in the past, but it has improved.

Q: Is a doctorate in Nursing Practice now a prerequisite to becoming a nurse practitioner?

Good question. It isn't now, but in the future the DNP is going to be the entry level of practice for the nurse practitioner. We want to make sure that we are ready for that future requirement.

Right now, you can have a master's and be a nurse practitioner. I am truly confident that the doctorate in Nursing Practice in this community is really going to change the way we deliver nursing care.

There are, I think, 15 DNP nurses in this community who have gone to other schools because we didn't have one here. They are really changing the way nursing is practiced in El Paso.

Q: How is the role of the nurse practitioner growing in importance?

It is increasing in importance, in providing health care to places where there are few physicians. So wherever there is a need for health care, nurse practitioners have really filled that void.

Q: How have the state's cuts to higher education impacted the School of Nursing?

All universities went through some budge cuts. But we were very fortunate here at UTEP, as well as the School of Nursing, that the bottom line in terms of the service we provide for our students and faculty was not affected.

E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.

KEYWORDS: UTEP, nursing, Elias Provencio-Vasquez, education, practitioner