BSNA and Elizabeth Zeleke
Student leaders of the Black Student Nurses Alliance, including founders Elizabeth Zeleke, Mya Johnson, Amia Graham, Donna Nkurunziza (vice-president), and Morgan Allen (president).

One nursing student group and two faculty members have won UVA Health's Martin Luther King Jr. Award for 2024, the health system’s distinguished annual award for remarkable work in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Associate dean Jeanne Alhusen was lauded for her NIH-funded research on women with disabilities, clinical instructor Mesha Jones was praised for her community engagement and health system leadership, and the founder-leaders of the Black Student Nurses Alliance (BSNA) student group were honored for their vision, leadership, and advocacy.

“These award winners’ work, advocacy, and activism is, in itself, diverse, and central to our School’s mission and quality,” said Marianne Baernholdt, dean and the Sadie Heath Cabaniss Professsor of Nursing. “They truly inspire and represent the multi-dimensional journey to belonging and inclusion we are and will always be on.”

Jeanne Alhusen, associate dean for research and the UVA Medical Center Endowed Professor of Nursing

Alhusen, a nurse scientist with more than $8.5 million in research grants, was nominated for her singular focus on an often marginalized population: women living with disabilities who are just as likely as their non-disabled peers to want and have children, often lack access to family planning healthcare, and accommodations by clinicians, and who are disproportionately impacted by violence, and, with their children, often suffer the ill effects of these factors throughout their lives.

“Jeanne’s research is her argument for change . . . With scientists like Jeanne to tell the story of disability, violence, and family planning, and advocate for changes in healthcare systems and clinicians themselves, a new pathway to truly inclusive care will become visible. It is a work in progress. Jeanne is importantly assuring that it continues."

Dean Marianne Baernholdt and associate dean Melissa Gomes in their nomination of Jeanne Alhusen for the 2024 MLK Award

Alhusen—the first scientist to demonstrate the link between exposure to violence during pregnancy and infants’ risk of being born small-for-gestational-age—has so far earned NIH grants totaling nearly $3 million for this work since 2018. Thus far, she’s found that more than one-third of disabled women become pregnant as a result of sexual violence; they are nearly 20% more likely to experience an unintentional pregnancy and are 2.5 times more likely than their non-disabled peers to be victims of violence in the year leading up to pregnancy.

Mesha Jones, clinical instructor, NPGO president, and a UVA Health ambulatory care nurse

Clinical instructor Mesha Jones, a nurse leader at UVA Health and the Virginia Nurses Association, was nominated for the diversity of her advocacy, including for her leadership role as president of UVA’s Nursing Professional Governance Organization, as commissioner on nursing practice for the VNA, her DEI role with the VNA and Virginia Nurses Foundation, and her role as past president of the VNA’s Piedmont chapter. Noted in her nomination, written by assistant professor Ashley Apple, was Jones’s impressive trajectory: her start as a patient care tech, her journey through an ADN, BSN, and MSN program, and her metoric rise as a nurse leader at a major health system. Apple noted Jones’s 2023 bid for a Madison County School Board seat and how, in 2023, when she met President Joe Biden at a rally, she took a nursing student and fellow faculty member with her.

“Mesha leverages her professional success to advocate on behalf of women and minorities, seizing every opportunity to raise awareness on important issues … and to amplify and celebrate the voices of women and minority leaders in healthcare.”

Assistant profAshley Apple in her nomination of Mesha Jones, clinical instructor, for the 2024 UVA Health MLK Award

Black Student Nurses Alliance (BSNA) student founders

The nearly two-year-old BSNA was established by fourth year BSN students Morgan Allen (its president) and Donna Nkurunziza (vice president), along with Amia Graham, Niyah Harris, Mya Johnson, Elise Nganou, and Elizabeth Zeleke, in spring 2022. Its stated purpose was to build a community space for nursing students of color, spread awareness about health issues that impact people of color, and advocate for individuals and collectives who are part of these groups. Through in-person events, themed gatherings, and social media, they marked important cultural events, like Women’s History Month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Black History Month, showcased Black clinicians and nursing faculty, and built community and understanding for students of color at UVA, which remains a predominantly white institution.

“It is often said at the School of Nursing that ‘if you don’t see it, you can’t become it.' These BSNA students are helping nursing students broadly speaking not only ‘see’ successful, active, engaged Black nurses and students, they’re forging a path to belonging through activism and engagement, and using their collective voices and faces for good.”

Dean Baernholdt and prof. Sarah Craig in their nomination of the BSNA student group founders

The honorees will be celebrated at the 11th Annual MLK Awards dinner and ceremony Jan. 18 in the Rotunda Dome Room.

Other MLK awardees include Rose Emily Gonzalez, of UVA Health’s developmental pediatrics, Alfred A. Wilson, in legal affairs at UVA Physicians Group, and the Birth Sisters of Charlottesville, a women of color community based doula collective that support pregnant women of color through their birth journey and into motherhood.