Diane White, Dean of Graduate School of Nursing and Health Professions

A Founding Dean with a New Vision for Healthcare Education

Everyone in nursing has a story that changes them. Diane White’s happened at the Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta in the nineties. While she was working the night shift in the trauma unit, a police officer was brought in who had been shot in the head. He was young, around 24 years old. “I didn’t figure he would last long,” White says. “But the parents weren’t ready to let go, so we just kept moving with what we were doing.”

For a week, White went through the motions with the young man, changing his sheets, giving him baths, all the while joking with her colleague as they often did on night shift. One night, she thought her friend Lee grabbed the hem of her lab jacket while she was setting up an antibiotic IV bag. “I said, ‘Lee, stop it. I’m trying to get the air out of this tubing,’” recalls White. That’s when her coworker replied from across the room that he didn’t know what she was talking about. He was taking care of another patient. 

She stopped what she was doing and turned toward the young man in the hospital bed. “He was looking straight up at me. And I looked down at him. And I said, ‘You’re in there?’” White remembers. 

Months later, he returned to thank the staff that cared for him that week. He asked about the two nurses that were so funny and worked the night shift. White turned her name tag around, embarrassed. She hadn’t thought he could hear them. As soon as she talked though, he recognized her voice. He had been aware the whole time. “That was when I went from high tech to high touch,” White says. “Since then, I’ve been made fun of for sitting and holding people’s hands and talking to people who probably aren’t going to make it, but you never know.”

This is what White loved about nursing, the connections she made with patients and their families. “What other profession can you touch one patient, and then touch how many hundreds of thousands of other people because of what you did in that one encounter?” she asks.  

As the Founding Dean of the Antioch University’s Graduate School of Nursing and Health Professions, White wants to bring this perspective to nurses who are coming to graduate school to expand their professional opportunities. But she recognizes that these encounters don’t happen in the vacuum of a clinical setting. They’re shaped by the healthcare system as a whole. Which is, in turn, are shaped by systemic biases. This is why White is committed to re-imaging healthcare in the United States, transforming it into a system that works for all. 

Faith and Experience Lead to Questions About Bias

“I think most people would say they’re surprised that I’m at Antioch,” White says. “I was raised a Southern Baptist preacher’s daughter, so I was raised conservative.” But she started to see the impacts of social inequities and racism at a young age. Her father left two of his ministries because white members of the congregations didn’t want Black people to be a part of them. “He was removed from those churches because his belief was, as he taught us, that all people are created equal,” she explains. This belief has shaped her journey both as a nurse and an educator. 

After graduating from nursing school, White began to work at the intensive care unit at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. The trauma unit was for emergencies and also served people who don’t have insurance, known as indigent care in Georgia. Patients didn’t reach White until they were in the worst shape, often needing high sedation and ventilation. They were seemingly unable to hear what was happening around them—which White is quick to note isn’t true. Hearing is one of the last senses to go. 

In the ICU though, she began to notice doctors making comments about the level of care people deserved because of their housing situation, income, or insurance status. Sometimes doctors wouldn’t put masks on for sterile procedures because they said it didn’t matter if a person got an infection. None of this sat well with White. “I was working on my masters at the time, and I could have those conversations with our learning groups and really think about the ethics behind healthcare and why we do what we do,” she says. 

“The reality is, I can promise you, in all those anatomy and physiology books, all the blood, it’s unidirectional flow, and everything else is the same in every human being,” White says. This universal commonality, coupled with her faith, led her to question why some people could access care while others were being left behind by the system. When she began teaching, the question would expand to how people’s educations were being limited by biases as well—including her own. 

Uncovering Biases for Better Learning Environments

When White walked into the lecture hall at Georgia State University as a teacher for the first time in 1993, she was full of stories like that of the surprising recovery of the young police officer. Unlike other professors in the nursing program, she hadn’t been working from the comfort of an office. White spent her nights under the bright lights and hectic conditions of the trauma center. 

Between complicated anatomy classes and ethics lectures, White offered students anecdotes that the future healthcare workers could imagine themselves in. At the end of that first day of teaching the clinical class, she was met with actual applause. After the lecture three women came down to the front of the room, wondering if they could ask her a question. “I said, ‘sure,’ because I’m thinking, ‘oh, they’re gonna tell me how great I am,’” White says. 

But the women, two of whom were Asian and one who was Black, were wondering about something else. White says they asked, “Have you ever noticed that when people ask questions or raise their hands, you always pick people that look like you first?” This was another defining moment in White’s life. She hadn’t realized she was doing this, and probably never would have if the students hadn’t told her. “I said, ‘I cannot tell you how thankful I am that you had the courage to come up here and tell me that because it will change my trajectory of how I think and be more cognizant of those things,’” White recalls. “And to this day, I still can do better, because the biases we all have are still there unconsciously.” 

Bringing biases to light is key to White’s vision for the nursing program at Antioch. She wants to make sure the environment supports all learners, not just people with systemic privilege. This means looking at language, courses, and curriculum to remove implicit bias. It also means hiring people from different backgrounds who bring different perspectives about the healthcare system. “We have to look at our faculty and our administrators. If everybody looks like me, students are not going to feel like they belong,” White says. 

From her years spent teaching and leading programs, she knows that these different perspectives will create the foundation for changing the healthcare field at large. “We need to recruit people who are going to go back and serve their community,” she says. “Those people, if we get them to Antioch, will be the game changers. They will be the ones making the difference.” 

A Vision for a Different Healthcare System

“People want to say healthcare isn’t political,” White says. And she doesn’t think it should be. But she also doesn’t shy away from the reality that it so often is. As she says, “If you’re telling people what they can and can’t do with their bodies, or if they can’t get healthcare or can’t afford it, I would say that’s political.” This is one of the reasons she’s most excited about developing the program at Antioch. In addition to helping students be the best healthcare providers they can be, she sees it as an opportunity to prepare advocates for the broader changes necessary to make healthcare more equitable. 

White knows Antioch will attract students who want to challenge systemic injustice. “People are tired, they are not okay with what’s going on,” White says. “They want a place where they can actually have a voice and acknowledge it.” 

In the early waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, White was hopeful that with the impacts of the social determinants of health laid bare, changes would be made. “I wished that I could be a part of a movement that really was going to do something about health disparities and the inequities that we see,” she says. But she hasn’t seen the changes she hoped for. Building this program is the lever she was looking for to create long-term change. “When we talk about healthcare, we have to talk about it being for all of humanity,” she says. 

She sees Antioch graduates, equipped with a foundational understanding of the inequities of our current systems, as future advocates as well as competent healthcare professionals. “Our people are going to be at the forefront of being known as experts in their fields,” she says, “consistently looking at every issue through the lens of social justice.” She wants them in clinics and hospitals, but she also wants them at decision-making tables in their state capitols, the Department of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control, and the floors of Congress. 

“We are at a pivotal time in political history where competent, intelligent expert health citizens are needed to advocate for change,” White says. “Our students will be those that promote democracy—and can act.”