Nurse, professor, scientist and activist all aptly describe Dr. Elizabeth Aquino.
As an associate professor in the School of Nursing at DePaul University and president of the American Nurses Association-Illinois, Aquino has also risen to national prominence in her field. In 2019, she was named one of “Five Hispanic Nurse Trailblazers Everyone Should Know” by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Dr. Aquino has established herself as an exemplary nurse leader and positive role model by advancing Latinx nurses’ roles, enhancing professional development for nurses and nursing students, and increasing the pipeline of Latinx nurses,” says Gloria E. Barrera, a nurse and educator who has served with Aquino on the boards of several professional associations.
Aquino’s current research includes two COVID-19-related projects. She is principal investigator of a survey examining “nurse preceptor perceptions of the hospital as a learning environment for nursing students during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Aquino is also co-investigator of a study to qualitatively describe the experiences of 100 nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to inform clinical practice and policy development.
“We interviewed frontline nurses to learn about their experiences caring for patients with COVID-19 during the first wave,” Aquino tells Diverse. “Even [with] the fear that many nurses feel right now with the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses continue to fight on the frontlines to provide the best care to their patients and their families and abide by our Code of Ethics.”
She says the nurses “had powerful stories that demonstrated resilience as they confronted the public health crisis head-on.”
Aquino believes in advocating for important causes and taking action to bring about change. She helped organize efforts to address the medical shortages in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria and she helped Chicago hospitals obtain personal protective equipment (PPE) during the early months of the COVID-19 crisis.
“When I heard and saw the devastation caused in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria,” Aquino recalls, “I partnered with a local community hospital and the National Association of Hispanic Nurses to help organize three medical mission trips to Puerto Rico.”
They sent providers, medical supplies and medication to the devastated U.S. territory.
More recently, she responded to the COVID-19 crisis, as it caused critical shortages of PPE. Aquino helped to coordinate donations of PPE to Chicago hospitals.
“Since nursing students were not allowed on campus during the early months of the pandemic, we had unused PPE supplies in the School of Nursing simulation lab,” she explains. “So we collected all of the PPE and donated the supplies to three local hospitals. I then encouraged other nursing programs to do the same.”
Barrera commends Aquino for providing DePaul University nursing students with learning opportunities outside of the classroom that include taking them to the state capital and encouraging them to speak with legislators.
“She hopes that her students will become nurse advocates and policymakers who will change and create anti-racist, inclusive and equitable policies for all people living in this country,” Barrera says.
Aquino says that her career choice and ambitions are a synergy of her parents’ distinctive influences. Her father emphasized the importance of higher education so that she would “never need to depend on anyone else,” and her mother “is the kind of person who wears her heart on her sleeve, cares for everyone else, and is always willing to help others at all costs. From my mother I learned how important it is to be kind, compassionate, caring, and selfless … many of the qualities that are required of a nurse.”
Aquino is interested in becoming a policymaker herself, pointing out that she recently applied for a training program for individuals interested in possibly seeking political office, something she already knows a bit about. Her husband is Illinois State Senator Omar Aquino, whom she credits with encouraging her interest in policymaking and advocacy.
She believes that “nurses are well suited to serve in public office, serve on boards and to advocate for change due to their understanding of public health [and] their experience advocating for patients and communities,” adding that they also possess “a readiness to take action to serve others.”
Dr. Elizabeth Aquino
Title: Assistant Professor of Nursing, School of Nursing, DePaul University
Education: B.S., psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; B.S., biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; M.S., generalist in nursing-Master’s Entry to Nursing Practice program (MENP), DePaul University; Ph.D., nursing science, University of Illinois at Chicago
Career mentors: Dr. Young-Me Lee, DePaul University
Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: “Being in the classroom as a new instructor can sometimes be intimidating and imposter syndrome can set in. But remember, you have worked hard and deserve to be there. You have so much knowledge and experience to share with your students. You got this!”
This article originally appeared in the January 21, 2021 edition of Diverse and is one in a series of profiles about this year’s 2021 Emerging Scholars. Read about all of them here.