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VCU School of Nursing classmates Ashley Rockhold, (BS ’13/N; left) and Brijaé Chavarria-Lewis, MD, MA (BS ’13/N; right), on learning from a complicated past

Just over fifty years before classmates Ashley Rockhold, (BS ’13/N) and Brijaé Chavarria-Lewis, MD, MA, (BS ’13/N) graduated from the VCU School of Nursing, the all-Black, all-female St. Philip School of Nursing graduated its last class of students due to decreasing enrollment as a result of desegregation. Established by the Medical College of Virginia to support St. Philip Hospital, the segregated Richmond hospital that served the Black community, the St. Philip School of Nursing graduated 791 nurses, some of whom are still very much active in the VCU School of Nursing alumni community. In 2012 on the 50th anniversary of the school’s closing, St. Philip alum had a chance to share their experiences with then-students Rockhold and Chavarria-Lewis. “I learned the importance of history through meeting the ladies of the St. Philip School of Nursing,” Rockhold reflects, “So many want to focus on achievements without acknowledging the hardships that were overcome to make great steps.” 

The experience of hearing these stories has had a lasting impact. “Of course, growing up Black in America, you know the history of this country and the racism that Black Americans have had to endure,” says Chavarria-Lewis. “Meeting with the alumni of St. Philip’s School of Nursing every year was always a reminder of the power of Black women. I tried to channel that same energy throughout my studies at the VCU School of Nursing and learned to never take the education I was receiving for granted. They paved the way and I worked harder because of them.” 

The VCU School of Nursing continues to reflect more diversity each year–more than 17% of students are Black and the school is proud to graduate the largest and most diverse group of prelicensure nursing professionals in Virginia. VCU Medical Center Main Hospital on Marshall Street where many of today’s students perform their clinical hours is the site where St. Philip Hall once stood. Now, a new and diverse generation of health science students learn and enter the profession there together. “The St. Philip building may no longer be standing, but the students who went there built a legacy. By meeting them and hearing their stories, I myself feel that I now carry that torch and their stories should be forever preserved and remembered for future minority nurses who feel marginalized or alone in their field,” says Rockhold. 

St. Philip School of Nursing

Part of honoring that legacy is a nursing education that makes connections with the past to understand how to address persistent challenges resulting from that history. For Chavarria-Lewis, lessons about racial health disparities, social determinants of health and community nursing have influenced her to take a new path–a dual master’s and doctor of medicine program in urban bioethics from Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. “One of the biggest things I learned at VCU School of Nursing (specifically Fay Parpart’s course in Mosby Court housing project) was the importance of social determinants of health in communities. I took that foundation of addressing those social determinants of health with service learning efforts with me throughout my educational journey and career. In healthcare, these are things that can’t be ignored.” 

Today, Chavarria-Lewis and Rockhold carry forward the remarkable lessons they learned in school as they forge their career paths. Chavarria-Lewis will soon graduate from psychiatry residency at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Rockhold was recently honored with a DAISY award, a recognition of nurses who provide above-and-beyond compassionate care to patients and their families, marking her sixth nomination. She currently serves as a pediatric RN at Mission Children’s Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, and is working towards selecting a specialty for a professional certification of her nursing license.

by Moira Neve

Categories Alumni and Friends, News
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