Barbara Nichols, Ambassador of Global Nursing

Profiles in Nursing

Barbara Nichols, Ambassador of Global Nursing

Making waves in the international health pool

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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During her two terms as the first black president of the American Nurses Association, Barbara Nichols, RN, DHL, MS, FAAN, averaged 12,000 miles of travel per month. That’s right — per month. Now, as chief executive officer of the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools, she “still keeps busy.”

Since graduating from nursing school in 1959 — in the days before CPR or, as she puts it, intensive care — Nichols has authored more than 70 articles and maintained her active participation in many nursing and health-related organizations. She has worked as a medical surgical nurse, head nurse, nursing instructor and as a consultant to innumerable organizations. The Paul G. Rogers Society for Global Health Research considers her one of the 50 most influential people involved in worldwide health initiatives.

What led to this global interest for someone solidly rooted, even today, in Wisconsin? 

According to Nichols, the ideas began with her first trip to an international nursing conference, which happened to convene in Nairobi, Kenya. While there, she came to realize how very fortunate American nurses are. Our issues are valid, but they pale in comparison to the working conditions in other countries. Nursing without equipment or medications offers special challenges most American nurses will never have. If they live in areas of conflict, our colleagues abroad often face the very real possibility of death on the job.

Realizing that she could contribute to better patient care and nursing in the international arena, Nichols gravitated toward a broader focus. For five years she worked with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation as a consultant for professional nursing in several African countries, including Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa.

While at the foundation she helped formulate nurse and medical practice acts, introduce continuing education and strengthened the role of professional nursing.  “American nursing is viewed as the gold standard,” Nichols says, even if other countries do not wish to copy everything about our system.

Barbara Nichols, nurseHer background makes her a natural for the role she now holds at CGFNS. The nonprofit was formed at the behest of the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services department, and the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare. For the past 30 years it has helped shepherd foreign-educated nurses through a process that will allow them to practice in the U.S. Before CGFNS, few succeeded in making it through that process — passing the licensing exam was just one of many hurdles — although many nurses would immigrate to the U.S. with the hope of working as a registered nurse.

With the advent of CGFNS, the process, while hardly simple, has much more chance of success. Fully 90 percent of the nurses who pass the prequalifying exam go on to pass the NCLEX. Rigorous evaluation of the candidate’s transcripts and home country nursing program is done through VisaScreen, which ensures that the education the nurse received is comparable to an American nursing education.

Nichols explains that CGFNS serves two goals: to protect the American public by ensuring nurses who come here to practice have adequate education, and to ensure that nurses who immigrate are not exploited by employers here.

While she may not travel those 12,000 miles a month anymore, Nichols is still on the go, spending three weeks a month in Wisconsin and one week in Philadelphia at the CGFNS offices. Her involvement in other nursing-related activities continues through her service to the American National Standards Institute, as a fellow in the American Academy of Nurses, as a recipient of the Mary Mahoney Award, and, in 2007, as one of Research America’s global health ambassadors.  

Elizabeth Hanink RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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