Five friends from TWU’s DNP program launch a nonprofit

The three letters “DNP” changed the trajectory of a friendship. Now, they’re helping the next generation of black women to lead in their own fields. 

Five women in doctoral academic regalia pose outdoors.

Her notes were intense. As a little girl watching the television series “ER,” Whitney Kirkpatrick Valentine loved all things related to health.

“While my mother, who is also a nurse, would be at work, I would take notes while watching the show—jotting down words I didn’t recognize like pneumothoraces and sepsis. When she would get home from the hospital, I would ask her to explain all of the terms in my notebook,” said Kirkpatrick Valentine, remembering how she’d imagine her adult self sashaying down the hospital’s hall in black heels and a white coat. 

In May 2019, Kirkpatrick Valentine—who came from a long line of nurses—became the first in her family to earn the title of doctor.

But by then, what she wanted was much bigger.

Paying it Forward

Commencement was special for Kirkpatrick Valentine and four of her friends, all African American women who finished the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program at Texas Woman’s University. The unique program at TWU T. Boone Pickens Institute of Health Sciences - Dallas Center prepares advanced practice nurses to function as expert clinicians. Like Kirkpatrick Valentine, the others were also the first in their families to graduate with doctoral degrees.

Kirkpatrick Valentine and Leticia Cole became school buddies their first year. Meanwhile, LaSteshia Ekeocha, Kyanna Silas and Dennia Thompson knew one another from Parkland Hospital where they worked as women’s health nurse practitioners. Eventually, all five were drawn together.

Five women in scrubs smile outside.

“You can get discouraged working and going to school full time,” said Thompson, adding that they also had roles as moms, wives and/or caregivers for older parents. “When you have no more to give, you need to have someone saying you can do it.”

As they neared graduation, it became clear that they could help others, too.

After graduating last year, they launched Black Women Instilling Scholarly Excellence, or BWISE, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women of color succeed. While the founding members all have nursing backgrounds, the group is open to those in other professions. This summer, they kicked off their first scholarship essay contest for an African American female high school senior starting college this fall. The deadline to apply is July 15.

It’s their effort to pay it forward—literally.

Ekeocha, the organization’s secretary, recalls the conversation that sparked it all. 

“We were coming out of class, all five of us, and a nursing student, a young black girl, said, ‘Wow. Where are all these beautiful black women coming from? I need to be with y’all,’” recalled Ekeocha. “We were shocked at how awe-struck she was to see five black women in the doctoral program at TWU. We said we need to do something about this. What are we going to do once we graduate to have more representation at TWU?”

They started brainstorming at lunch. By that night and one “mad group text” later, they had a concept and name.

“We were just daydreaming,” said Kirkpatrick Valentine. “Our big thing was representation, we want more black faces as well as showcase the variety of professions there are, instead of solely the ones you hear about most commonly for black women. Our community needs that.”

Silas, the group’s second vice president, recalls that in the DNP program at TWU, “there were probably seven or eight African American ladies” and many other minority women. Before that though, in most of their educational careers they were often the only black women present.

“All of us were taken aback. We were surprised that just about everyone in the class looked like us, especially at TWU,” said Thompson.

Cole agrees.

“That representation is so important,” said Cole, the organization’s first vice president. “An older lady took me under her wing at church. She had a doctoral degree. Simply sitting beside her at church and getting to know her, I realized that at one point, she was a black girl too. There were things she had to endure that I necessarily didn’t have to endure, but she accomplished these things, and I can too. A lot of my accomplishments come from her, Dr. Gwen T. Clark, a TWU alumna.” 

They built on their experiences

Thompson, the treasurer, had a child at a young age and had to climb ladders to complete her DNP. Kirkpatrick spent two years as an emergency room nurse before deciding to pursue the doctorate degree she dreamt of as a child. Silas, inspired by an aunt who was a nurse, became the first college graduate in her immediate family. A single mom of two, she started by completing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Prairie View A&M University.

Five women in doctor's robes outdoors.

"I grew up in Oak Cliff and graduated number three in my class," said Silas. "We were poor, but I didn't know I was poor until I asked my parents for certain things and didn't receive them. When I got older, I realized that together, in a two-parent household, my parents made less than $50,000. However, my aunt was a licensed practical nurse, and I saw how much money she made by herself. I saw the difference in having an education."

“The common denominator is that we needed that extra push, and we all had key people in our lives who really played a part in everything we’ve accomplished so far,” said Cole.

As for Ekeocha, she grew up in a low-income family and wasn’t afforded the same opportunities as her wealthier classmates. Still, she graduated in the top 10 in high school and had planned to become a traditional medical doctor, but through volunteer work she developed a passion for nursing.

“I want BWISE to be the platform to allow other girls who grew up just like me, who come out of nowhere to know that they can go to any college they want to and to be anything they want to be. Coming from nothing and having patients call me Dr. LaSteshia—I want that for other little girls,” said Ekeocha.

She added that the scholarship is intended to help young women get there. For the essay, students are asked to write about how COVID-19 has impacted their education and how they were able to persevere despite the challenges.

“Education is pivotal to go further in your career and to leave a legacy for your families and loved ones,” Ekeocha said.

A Starting Point

The initial scholarship is $500. Kirkpatrick Valentine, BWISE’s president, says this is just the beginning. They have a tiered mentorship model and will start pairing mentors with mentees this year. Additionally, they hope to one day distribute full scholarships, host community events, open a headquarters and branch out to the entire state. 

“We just want women to know that even though it’s hard now and it seems like you have so much in front of you and that there are all these hurdles—but I did it, she did it, they’re doing it, and you can do it,” she added.

Individually, they’ve accomplished much, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the cancellation of their plans for an inaugural scholarship gala and fundraiser.

Ekeocha, Silas, Thompson, Cole and Kirkpatrick Valentine smile outdoors on TWU's Denton campus with the library in the background.

Ekeocha, Silas and Thompson now hold leadership titles and work to improve patient outcomes and employee relations in the women’s health department at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital, which cares for underserved communities. Thompson works in the obstetrics and gynecology emergency department and is a certified adult/adolescent sexual assault nurse examiner for the state of Texas. Silas, who also completed her master’s degree from TWU and was encouraged by Ekeocha and Thompson to pursue her Doctorate in Nursing Practice, is an adjunct nursing faculty member at UT Arlington and Chamberlain University. Ekeocha, an advanced practice provider who also serves as the chairperson for her clinic, has a passion for educating women about their bodies. Cole, a nurse practitioner and co-owner of Sniffles and Giggles, a pediatric primary clinic in Waxahachie, is working to keep her business strong.

“COVID-19 is hard on many levels,” said Cole. “We worry about not only the health and wellbeing of our patients as well as our individual families. We have to be careful about bringing the virus home.”

Both Cole and Kirkpatrick Valentine serve as adjunct nursing faculty at TWU Dallas. Kirkpatrick Valentine also works as a nurse practitioner in Parkland’s emergency observation unit.

As to that mental picture she had of herself all those years ago?

“Yes, I do sashay down the hall in my white coat,” she said, smiling. “Except now I do it in flats instead of heels. I’m too old for that.”

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Page last updated 10:33 AM, March 18, 2024