Making the PLAN Work

A Mentor and a Mentee

A central pillar of Columbia Nursing’s new holistic admissions process is the Pathways to Leadership and Advancement in Nursing (PLAN) program, which provides financial, academic, emotional, and professional support for MDE students from disadvantaged backgrounds. That help comes partly from peer mentors, including a team of three academic coaches. One of them is Najah Boyd, MS ’21, a first-year student
in the pediatric DNP program.

Columbia Nursing - Najah Boyd, MS ’21

Najah Boyd, MS ’21

Boyd, 23, grew up near Atlanta, in a family where most of the women were educators. Teaching, she says, “is something I’ve always been drawn to.” She began coaching for PLAN during her own second year as an MDE student, offering weekly Zoom study sessions to a group of up to 10. “The subject matter depends on what they need at the time,” she explains. “During the first semester, for example, they were taking pharmacology, which is pretty difficult. I would make little study guides or share tips that I remembered from my own experience.” She also advises those who approach her individually for help.

Such support, Boyd says, can ensure that students from marginalized groups don’t just get into the school, but make it all the way to graduation. “Coming into this program, it’s so difficult and fast and crazy. It’s never a bad thing to have someone in your corner who understands what you’re going through and is rooting for you. And for me, it’s nice to be part of something where we’re not just saying, ‘Okay, we’re getting numbers in diversity.’ We’re making sure that people are learning, sticking with it, and actually enjoying their time here.”

A Lifeline in Unfamiliar Terrain

One of Boyd’s mentees, Chelsea Okorafor, agrees with that assessment. “The MDE program can be overwhelming, so it was great to talk to someone who had fun going through it,” she says. “Najah was so generous in sharing her own notes, pointing us toward useful resources, and being there for us to ask questions.”

Okorafor, 26, is from a Minneapolis suburb, the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant father and an American-born mother. She came to nursing in a roundabout way: Interested in pregnancy and early childhood, she earned her bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology, then worked for three years in pediatric mental health. Gradually, though, she found that her real passion lay elsewhere. “I realized that Black women from all walks of life—from the upper echelons of society on down to everyday people—were getting sick and dying because of not being believed by the medical system. That was unacceptable to me. I wanted to become the provider who goes the extra mile, who’s willing to spend an extra few minutes listening to a concern.”

After deciding to study midwifery, Okorafor chose Columbia Nursing in part because of PLAN. “Learning about the program made me feel like there were people in the school who cared about my success, who were going to keep an eye out for me,” she says. And the program’s academic support hasn’t been the only aspect that’s proved valuable to her.

Columbia Nursing - Chelsea Okorafor

Chelsea Okorafor

“Early in the summer term it was like that scene in I Love Lucy where the chocolates are coming down the conveyor belt and she can’t handle it,” Okorafor recalls. “I was away from my parents, my friends, my boyfriend, everybody. And moving to New York from Minnesota was such a culture shock—like moving to another country.” Through PLAN, Okorafor met with licensed social worker Rachael Samuel, assistant director of Student Support, who helped her navigate that difficult emotional terrain. “Rachael has such a warm energy, and she checked in with me regularly to make sure I was okay,” Okorafor says. “It was a lifeline to have her there.”

Okorafor weathered the crisis; in fact, she gained enough confidence to run for the Student Council—and won. She serves on its Interschool Committee, which builds relationships between the clinical programs at Columbia Nursing and those at the other professional schools affiliated with Columbia University Irving Medical Center, as well as across the University as a whole. Meanwhile, she’s excelling at her studies, contemplating going on to earn a DNP in nurse-midwifery, and looking forward to making a difference in patients’ lives.

“I knew nurses worked hard, but it wasn’t until I got to my clinical sites that I really understood how essential they are to the running of a hospital,” she says. “I’m proud to be learning to be one of them.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Columbia Nursing Magazine.