Washing dishes. It’s the proverbial first step on that storied journey from anonymity to achievement in America, and so it was for Elias Provencio-Vasquez, the first Latino male to earn a doctorate in nursing and head a nursing school in the United States.
Provencio-Vasquez, PhD, RN, FAAN, FAANP, got his start in the health care industry as a teenager more than four decades ago when he took a job organizing food trays at a hospital kitchen in Phoenix. The one-time dishwasher was tapped in 2010 to become the dean of the nursing school at the University of Texas at El Paso. He now works just across the river from Ciudad Juarez, the border city in Mexico where his parents lived before he was born.
In the intervening years, he has practically done it all in nursing. He has served as a clinical nurse, a nurse researcher, a nurse educator, and a school administrator, and he has also been certified as a pediatric and neonatal nurse practitioner.
Provencio-Vasquez is internationally renowned for his pioneering work in neonatal and pediatric care and in women’s health. And he holds fellowship status at a number of institutions, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), where he was an Executive Nurse Fellow (2009-2012). He attributes his stunning rise in part to the many nurses who helped him along the way.
Ever since his first job in the hospital kitchen in Phoenix, Provencio-Vasquez has been inspired by the work of nurses, he says. As a young man, the nurses he met befriended him and taught him about their work, unwittingly steering him into the field. He soon applied for and got a job as a unit clerk in an emergency room at a nearby hospital, and then decided to commit to the profession by earning associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. After more than a dozen years in clinical practice, he earned his doctorate, becoming the first Latino in the country to do so.
For his doctoral dissertation, Provencio-Vasquez tracked premature babies and their families after they were discharged from the hospital and created an intervention for nurses to help parents of premature infants transition from hospitals to their homes. He later shifted his research focus from infants to their mothers, and sought ways to reduce the maternal risk of substance abuse, HIV exposure, and intimate partner violence during and after pregnancy. For his research, he oversaw a study that involved more than 500 home visits to at-risk women who were taught parenting and health skills. “The mothers really responded well to that,” Provencio-Vasquez says. “They just needed to be reminded that they were powerful and great mothers.”
Prior to his current position, Provencio-Vasquez served as associate dean at the University of Miami and as director for the Neonatal Nurse Practitioner program at the University of Texas at Houston and the University of Maryland. Now one of a few dozen male deans at U.S. schools with baccalaureate and/or undergraduate nursing programs, Provencio-Vasquez recognizes that he is a role model for aspiring nurses who are men and who are racial or ethnic minorities. He also serves as a National Advisory Committee member for New Careers in Nursing (NCIN), a program supported by RWJF that provides scholarships to students from groups that are underrepresented in nursing or who are from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“I never thought that having faculty or people that look like you would make a difference, but it does,” he says. “If you see faculty who you can identify with, that does make a difference.”