Professional citizenship has been on my mind since writing an editorial on the topic for the journal’s 33(4) issue.1 Very little is written about the contours of professional citizenship in nursing, and much less is known about how we begin to engender professional citizenship in nurses. To become professional citizens in practice, it seems logical that we begin the journey as students. The student experience should establish professional citizenship as a habit of the mind. The future of a profession will not take care of itself; full participation by its members is required. Being a citizen in a profession comes with rights, responsibilities, and privileges by virtue of being a member, even a student member, of the profession.
That professional citizenship should begin with the student experience was verified for me by the current president of the American Nurses Association, Ernest Grant, during a panel discussion at a recent nursing policy conference. Asked by the audience to identify his interest in serving at the highest level in the profession’s most notable organization, he responded that it all began in his undergraduate program. Participation in the profession, he explained, was not a choice at his school–it was an expectation. Students attended state nursing organization meetings where their faculty members served as role models by actively participating in committees, leading initiatives, and as a student observer, he noticed they “were up at the microphone” expressing points of view during topic debates. Clearly, professional citizenship starts with professional nurses setting expectations and modeling the behavior. Nursing curricula include content on leadership. But do we expect and model citizenship within the profession? My answer is maybe, sometimes, and definitely not consistently.
Student participation in professional nursing organizations is an option for instilling the value of professional citizenship; however, additional foundational strategies exist provided we broadly conceptualize professional citizenship as the rights, responsibilities, and privileges attendant to being a student member of a profession. Universities and schools have a student code of conduct designed to communicate to students a shared responsibility for maintaining an academic environment supportive of knowledge advancement and student development in an open, trusting, civil exchange of ideas. Students are expected to adhere to the code as partners in a collective commitment to mutual respect. The code sets expectations for student behavior.
What would a professional citizenship code look like for nursing students? It could start with reframing expectations. Could the perpetual problem of getting students to complete course evaluations be reframed as a professional responsibility? What about participation in student government? Does it involve attendance at significant events such as school celebrations, recognitions, and graduation? Does it require joining the alumni(ae) association? These activities may be viewed as optional by those who simply inhabit the profession but are responsibilities for engaged citizens. Students challenged to live up to a code of professional citizenship will be more likely to continue engagement after graduation, serving as clinical preceptors, officers in organizations, peer reviewers for journals, community advocates, policy leaders, and maybe even as president of a prestigious national organization.
Nursing needs to set forward expectations for professional citizenship, a behavioral code that starts as a student and permeates a career. Nursing has a national initiative supporting appointment of nurses to private and public health-related boards of directors, a noble and needed initiative, the roots of which should begin way before an experienced nurse is appointed by a governor to a state health commission. It starts by instilling in students the sense of responsibility for completing course evaluation and attending student government meetings. Professional citizenship expectations are modeled by citizens of nursing.
Now is a good time for creating in students the habit of the mind that is professional citizenship. Now is the time for all of us to become a role model for the behavior of professional citizens.