A common thread connects the Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston faculty member and student honored in the Houston Chronicle’s 2021 Salute to Nurses – mental health care experience in the criminal justice system.
“Like me and you”
Known on campus as “Dr. Chudi,” Assistant Professor Chukwudi C. Ekwemalor, PhD, MBA, MSN, RN, PMHNPBC, leads the undergraduate psychiatric and mental health nursing program and co-teaches graduate courses. A quantity surveyor/project manager turned nurse, he earned his first diploma and Master of Business Administration in his native country of Nigeria, then studied at Houston Community College to become a licensed vocational nurse upon immigrating to the U.S.
“I started my nursing career in nursing homes and later worked at the Harris County Jail,” Ekwemalor said, noting that it is estimated that half the people incarcerated there have at least one mental health condition. “Mental health treatment in jail and other places requires a lot of therapeutic communication. You have to really talk to patients in a way that enables you to understand them.”
Ekwemalor went on to receive his Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from Prairie View A&M University before earning his Master of Science in Nursing and PhD from Cizik School of Nursing, as well as completing a post-master’s program to become a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner. His research interests focus on vulnerable populations, immigrants, and minorities. His long list of awards as a student and an educator include an Excellence in Nursing Silver Medal from the Good Samaritan Foundation.
“Now is a time of great opportunity for psychiatric and mental health nurses, and succeeding in the field requires truly being a people person,” said Ekwemalor. “Therapeutic communication is at the heart of psych nursing. Patients have to trust you to reveal some of the difficult personal situations of their life. You have to genuinely try to understand somebody and walk with them. A lot of psychiatric patients are people who are like me and you.”
Exploring diverse options
Like many students earning BSN degrees through Cizik School of Nursing’s 15-month Pacesetter program, Lance Edwards was preparing for a career change. The London native was one of only three students across Houston to receive a scholarship through the Salute to Nurses program.
Back in England, Edwards worked as a psychologist treating adolescents and patients with schizophrenia. Like Ekwemalor, he worked with mental health patients in the Harris County Jail, where he served as a case manager. He soon moved to the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, where he used multisystemic therapy to help teens and their parents.
“I worked in a hospital before (in London), and I really missed the more medical side of things,” Edwards said. A visit to an emergency department with a relative piqued his interest in nursing, and his wife encouraged him to make the change.
Edwards graduated in August 2021 and was very active at Cizik School of Nursing, serving in the Ambassador program, as president of the school’s National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter, and as an Area Health Education Center Scholar. He also tutored undergraduate students taking Ekwemalor’s class. A PARTNERS scholarship helped him focus on his studies and academic activities full time.
Before graduation, Edwards was leaning toward working in an emergency department but was exploring other aspects of nursing as well. “There are so many options in nursing. It’s so dynamic and diverse,” Edwards said.
His advice to prospective nursing students is to choose the right school, develop a good schedule, and use the educational resources available to you.
“It really is a lot of work, but it’s very achievable,” he said. “You have to really involve yourself in the school community. You can’t really do it alone.”