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Bringing Health Justice by Reframing Beliefs: Profile of Vonnie Brown

Voncelia Brown PhD, RN
Public health is all the people, all the time.
Bringing Health Justice by Reframing Beliefs: Profile of Vonnie Brown

Voncelia Brown, PhD, RN, is an associate professor of nursing whose passion for community health has taken her and her nursing students from the classrooms of Salisbury University to Arusha, Tanzania and Cuenca, Ecuador.  With over 30 years of teaching experience, Dr. Brown believes that the essential first step in addressing migrant health is shifting the perspectives about migrants.  Every semester, she works to do just that.

Dr. Brown began her career in health by pursuing a hospital diploma program --  a three-year intensive focused on patient contact and nursing skills -- to become a registered nurse.  Though she has taught at both community colleges and universities, Dr. Brown still holds that diploma programs offered superior, experience-based education.  She explained that “by Thanksgiving, my college friends were struggling with anatomy class [while] I held somebody’s hand as they died. That’s the beauty of a diploma program: hands-on experience.”

After receiving her diploma and certification as a registered nurse, Dr. Brown worked for a year at a small community hospital in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Dr. Brown then returned home to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and began working in the Intensive Care Unit at Peninsula Regional Medical Center (PRMC), where she first encountered the health disparities of migrants.  Language barriers, lack of cultural competency, and adverse attitudes toward the uninsured left many migrant patients with inadequate care, said Dr. Brown. She became acutely aware of the unmet needs of this population, and, as she transitioned into her teaching role, she committed to changing attitudes and instilling cultural competency in her nursing students.  

Dr. Brown’s commitment to change did not begin or end with her teaching career.  While working at PRMC, it became clear that the trend was shifting towards bachelor’s degree programs in place of diploma programs for registered nurses.  By 1979, there were no local colleges offering a bachelor of nursing. In response, Dr. Brown and her 13 fellow diploma nurses contacted their legislators, urging them to bring the University of Maryland’s nursing program to the Eastern Shore.  The University of Maryland accommodated the nurses and before long, each of them received their bachelor’s degree in nursing. The determined crew then pressured to bring a master’s degree in nursing to the Eastern Shore and succeeded yet again.

Dr. Brown pursued a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing from the University of Maryland.  Focusing on family and group psychiatric nursing, Dr. Brown’s goal was to encourage people to make their mental health a priority.  In her words, “community mental health is about empowering those who are voiceless and disenfranchised -- people who are getting out of jail, all minorities, and migrants. What I’m all about is keeping people mentally healthy, [teaching them] how to deal with stress,” and cope with tragedy. When she started to look at community issues on the Eastern Shore, she became aware that services and resources were lacking in depth for these vulnerable groups. All of her work following her master’s was focused on better meeting the needs of the community. Her PhD, which is in Human Development from the University of Maryland, College Park, went right in line with her philosophy and brought a new dimension to her vision for a more robust community.

To better meet the needs of underserved populations, Dr. Brown believes that service providers have a responsibility to build trust, control costs, and bring services to the field.  She names the Sisters of Charity at the Seton Center in Princess Anne, MD, as her role models of migrant and community health.  “Sister Eileen, Sister Cecilia, and Sister Diane aren’t halted by the stumbling blocks that many other organizations experience.  They connect migrant workers with legal services, give them ten dollars for a tank of gas, find a way to send them to their home country for a funeral,” providing anything that the people could need.

In 1978, Dr. Brown was offered a job at Wor-Wic Community College in Salisbury, MD to teach psychiatric nursing.  She taught there for five years and chaired the nursing department for one year.  She was then contacted by Salisbury University to teach Community Health Nursing, which she continues to teach over 25 years later. Dr. Brown recognizes the importance of exposing her students to the struggles that migrants face.  Her experience taught her that the “lack of understanding of one’s culture is a barrier to quality care,” and that’s why she started taking her students abroad.  She tells her students: “You need to be uncomfortable; you need to be an outsider to realize what you don’t know and to increase your empathy.”     

Dr. Brown’s commitment to community health and the underserved has motivated her to be a pioneer for change.  Every semester, Dr. Brown has a forum to open the minds of her 60 baccalaureate nursing students.  As an educator, she hopes to increase her impact exponentially by instilling in her students her motto: “Public health is all the people, all the time.”

30 CLINICIANS MAKING A DIFFERENCE is a project celebrating Migrant Clinicians Network's 30th anniversary through the life stories of 30 clinicians making a difference in migrant health. Learn more about Migrant Clinicians Network.

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