To address health care inequities, the University of St. Thomas wants to train the next generation of nurses to understand other cultures and their own biases to improve care for historically overlooked populations.

The private college's first nursing school will open its doors to students next fall with a focus on cultural awareness, burnout prevention and community health care. The nursing school's bachelor's and master's degree programs received final approval from the national Higher Learning Commission on Monday.

"We are designing a clinical education that is really different," said MayKao Hang, dean of St. Thomas' Morrison Family College of Health, which will include the nursing school. "The road to disparities was built by very well-intended people. And it's because they always thought that the people they were serving were exactly like them. That turns out to not be true."

The launch of the St. Thomas school comes as the U.S. is projected to face a shortage of nurses in the coming years. Two other Minnesota colleges, St. Cloud State University and the College of St. Benedict, recently launched doctoral nursing programs to help meet growing demand.

St. Thomas' nursing school will focus on recruiting students who historically have been underrepresented in the field, administrators say. They have set a goal for at least 30% of the school's inaugural class to consist of students of color, rural students and students who are the first in their families to attend college.

The college is already beginning to advertise the new nursing programs on local Somali, Hmong and Spanish radio stations.

"When we have nurses out there that look like the communities [that] they're caring for, the outcomes are actually better for patients," said Martha Scheckel, the nursing school's founding director.

The college will "strongly prefer" that applicants have a cumulative GPA of 3.0, Scheckel said, but that will not be the most important factor. Admissions counselors will be equally interested in students' experiences and attributes.

"I strongly believe that we miss a lot of students who will make stellar nurses because of high GPA cutoffs," Scheckel said.

St. Thomas is planning to put a community-focused spin on nursing students' clinical rotations.

In addition to traditional hospital placements, the nursing school is in talks with the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District to embed students in the area to provide care to homeless people. Another partnership is in the works with the St. Paul Public Library, where some students could be stationed to teach kids and families health education.

"It's a street-level approach to clinical education," Hang said. "Students will still get everything that's required by accreditation, but they'll get more."

Hang and Scheckel believe such experiences will give nursing students a better understanding of how social and economic circumstances affect personal health.

Students will be consistently challenged to understand different perspectives in the classroom, too, Hang said. The school's curriculum will be designed to continually develop students' cultural competency as they progress toward graduation.

About 70% of nursing school courses will also address burnout and strategies to prevent it, Scheckel said. Burnout among nurses is a perpetual problem that has only worsened during the pandemic. Students will be taught to take their well-being seriously and to promote self-care to their colleagues.

"I think it's a very different approach than what I've seen in my years of nursing, primarily because of what's happened during the pandemic," Scheckel said. "We don't want nurses to get out there and leave in three years."