Nursing student Amber Balkcom is on a mission to help young Black women like herself pursue careers in health care.
Balkcom, 24, from Jacksonville, Florida, is in the second semester of the three-semester accelerated BSN program in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Nursing. She is also a co-founder of the National Society of Black Women in Medicine, an organization that encourages young Black women to enter health care, and she is working to establish a chapter at UTHSC.
Balkcom is a first-generation college graduate. “My dad moves furniture, and my mom is a substitute teacher,” she said. “But my parents really showed me and my brother so much love that it made up for everything that we lacked and they really stressed the importance of education.”
She initially moved to Memphis after completing her degree at Florida State University to take job at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in electron microscopy.
“I guess I was still trying to find my footing,” she said. “I always knew that I wanted to do something related to health care. I just didn’t really have a blueprint or a guideline as to what that was. But then I found out about nursing research, and that’s when I decided to pursue the Accelerated BSN program.”
While the UTHSC Accelerated BSN program is a great start toward her eventual dream of pursing science and research, she is grateful for another program that has made attending nursing school possible. She is a participant in the Methodist Le Bonheur Scholars Initiative, which provides tuition and fees for students in the UTHSC Accelerated BSN program in return for a promise that they will work for two years in the MLH System after graduation.
“At MLH, we strive to improve every life we touch, and that starts with the lives of our employees,” said Nikki Polis, senior vice president and chief nurse executive for Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare. “We invest in our current workforce, as well as prepare future generations for rewarding and unlimited career growth opportunities. For students interested in a career in nursing, our MLH Scholars Initiative covers tuition and fees, so students can focus on their education. We also offer job placement after graduation, so those who study in our community can stay in our community to make a real difference in the lives of our patients and families.“
Balkcom is aware that many young Black women might not be fortunate to have support to help them navigate their way into a career in health care.
She wants to do something about that.
In 2017 as undergraduates, Balkcom and a friend, Ashlie Phillips, started the nonprofit National Society of Black Women in Medicine. “We started it because we saw that there was a need for more representation of minority women pursuing careers in medicine,” Balkcom said. They used the word “medicine” to refer to all aspects of health care, including nursing, medicine, pharmacy, and other health care professions.
The organization provides information, support, and mentoring for young Black women interested in careers in health care.
“Our first goal was to provide medically related exposure, so that Black women who are pursuing these careers could get admission into graduate school.”Amber Balkcom
What started at Florida State University has expanded to 12 universities, including several in Florida, as well as at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
“At the collegiate level, we provide scholarships,” she said. “We provide medically related exposures, such as suturing events and other events, that they can put on their CV. We provide seminars on professional development. We have a pathway series that highlights different careers that you can take within health care. And then on the professional level, we offer mentorship opportunities and we are in the works to get continued medical education programming for some of our seminars.”
The organization has a collegiate board of student leaders on the various campuses. A professional board includes women from diverse positions, including researchers, pharmacists, physicians, and other professionals, who can help guide young women in their schooling and career choices.
“We decided in 2021 that we wanted to build a leadership pipeline ranging from pre-collegiate to collegiate to professionals,” she said. “And so, we gathered a team of women who oversee the professional board, because we realize that each moment of a Black woman’s life, you face adversities and barriers that kind of steer you away from staying within that career field. The goal of our pipeline is really to recruit and retain Black women in health care and science careers. “
Essentially, Balkcom said, the goal is to make the path to a health care career easier for girls like herself.
“I can’t speak on behalf of all African American women, but I can speak on my journey. From my journey, I know that oftentimes, it’s just the lack of knowing. I didn’t know that there are multiple types of doctors that you could be within the health care field.”Amber Balkcom
Roadblocks can be everything from not knowing how to take notes in class, to lack of money to pay for test prep or exams, to advisers who might discourage young women whose grades may need some improvement.
“It just can kind of get very discouraging if you have all of those things going on,” she said. “And it’s just a dream, you know, and it’s kind of like, well, you could just go do something else.”
As she pursues her dream to obtain admission and to a dual DNP/PhD program, Balkcom intends to bring other women into health care fields along with her.
“The message for young woman like me is a dream deferred is definitely not a dream denied,” she said. “You know, just because it doesn’t happen on your plan or if you feel lost, there are people out there who want to help you and you can do it.”
Balkcom is recruiting students and health care professionals to help her establish a chapter of the National Society of Black Women in Medicine at UTHSC. Those interested should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.