A program aimed at recruiting and retaining more nurses of color in the Greater Boston region has received a $20 million boost in funding from its overseeing organizations.

The Clinical Leadership Collaborative for Diversity in Nursing program at UMass Boston, a collaboration between the college and Mass General Brigham, has offered financial and mentoring support to around nine students each year since it started in 2008. With this increased funding, the program now plans to support about 400 students over the next five years in order to address inequities and further diversify the nursing workforce.

Gaurdia Bannister, executive director of the Institute for Patient Care at Massachusetts General Hospital, said nurses are in a unique position to improve patients' health outcomes because they spend more time with patients than other clinical staff. And she says being a nurse of color or bringing a particular cultural competence can “really help move the dial” onlong-standing andworsening health inequities in Massachusetts.

“And I can tell you, these students are extraordinary,” Bannister said. “They are so passionate about wanting to become nurses and have overcome challenges. ... Sometimes these students may be a little bit older, so they have families that they need to take care of. Some of them are immigrants. They're committed, though, to staying.”

Lindsey Desameau, who graduated from UMass Boston’s nursing school in May and will soon be working at Brigham Women’s Hospital, received three semesters of tuition assistance and stipends amounting to around $17,000. She was also assigned an experienced nurse mentor who, like her, is Haitian American. She recognizes how her background can help patients.

“I've even had doctors come up to me and knowing that I speak Haitian Creole say ‘Can you come in and translate for us and kind of have that small talk with the patient?’ And it's been a tremendous change for that patient,” said Desameau.

UMass Boston Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco told GBH News the increased funding for the program, to support more students like Desameau, will be transformational.

“Nursing is the vertebrae of our healthcare system,” he said. “So we need to address nursing shortages. We need to improve patient care. Nurses are at the forefront of cost effectiveness, health promotion, prevention and really adapting to the evolving needs of the patient population.”

Katie Murphy, the president of the Massachusetts Nursing Association, said she is concerned about nursing shortages in the state, but believes that working conditions, including staff-to-patient ratios that her union feels are too low, have caused nurses to leave Massachusetts after graduating.

“From our point of view, I mean, if you look at the numbers on the Board of Registration’s nursing website, we have more nurses today than we did before the pandemic,” Murphy said. “We’re graduating nurses all over the state, a couple of thousand every year. So we don't have a nursing shortage. We really don't. But we have nurses that are not willing to work under these circumstances.”

Murphy also agreed increased diversity is important for both patients and providers, but that "we have a long way to go." Out of the Massachusetts Nursing Association's more than 22,000 members, a recent internal survey showed about 90% are white, compared to just around 70% in the state population on the whole.

Murphy said one factor in that discrepancy may be the cost and time it takes to obtain a nursing degree. There are some associate degrees, but she said a bachelor's degree is effectively required for nurses who want to find work in higher-paying hospitals.

Getting a nursing degree is expensive; and I think that that kind of reflects the systemic racism in our society as a whole.” said Murphy. “Who has the wherewithal, who's got that generational wealth to pay?”

UMass Boston’s nursing school said of its approximately 1,800 current students, 20% are Black, 14% Latinx, and 13% Asian — which is close to the racial and ethnic makeup of Boston. Mass General Brigham couldn’t share demographic data on its nursing staff, but did say that 34% of its almost 86,000 total employees are non-white, with around 11% of them being Asian, 11% Black and about 10% being Hispanic.

Suárez-Orozco said the investment in this nursing program and the fact most UMass Boston students stay in the area will further diversify the state's nursing workforce. He said that five years after graduation, more than 80% of all UMass Boston students are still working in Massachusetts.

“The number of students from other universities that stay here in Boston is minuscule compared to our demographic,” Suárez-Orozco said. “Our bet here is that the fact that the hospitals are reaching out to us to create this partnership around like-minded approaches to the training of the next generation of nurses will prove an enduring investment in our health care, in our patient population, and the [residents] of Boston and the commonwealth.”