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Wait, You’re a Nurse? Jessica Way, Nu’99, RN

Nurse, Educator, and Politician-in-Training

Currently an educator and an Emerge alumni board representative for Emerge Pennsylvania, Jessica Way grew up a military child in the United States Navy and graduated from Penn Nursing with plans to become a registered nurse and work in public health. After stints as a maternal child health nurse in East Harlem; Norristown, PA; and near the border of Mexico, she spent a year on the bioterrorism planning team with the New York City Office of Emergency Management. She shared her journey with Penn Nursing.

Getting her start

The most important time I spent at Penn Nursing was in the program Bridging the Gaps. I got the chance to run a summer program for a group of children living in Southwest Philadelphia. That experience taught me that those with privilege must think deeply about how they can create pathways for people to be freed from poverty. My experience in Southwest Philadelphia taught me about the serious consequences of systemic injustice and racism and the dire consequences it has on communities of color. I did my community health rotation and my senior leadership project for Penn Nursing at the former Pepper Middle School in Southwest Philly, and that was the beginning of my relationship with the School District of Philadelphia.

Narrowing the Gaps

After several years working largely in communities of color, it was clear that there needed to be more health care professionals that were raised within these communities, and so I helped establish the Academy of Public Health at the Franklin Learning Center. We have students from every section of Philadelphia; many are children of immigrants, and collectively, they speak over 20 languages. Many of my students’ families rely on them to navigate Philadelphia’s complex web of primary care, specialists, and inpatient care. They are unbelievable advocates.

At the Franklin Learning Center, I definitely encourage my students to consider nursing. The profession is a very large tent with room enough for every type of personality, but it needs more diversity. Unfortunately, the bar to enter nursing is very high and reliant on standardized test scores that are notoriously skewed against students of color. It is my hope that nursing schools like Penn will continue to find ways to facilitate the progress of amazing students like mine through to their BSN so that they can have every opportunity that I had.

Finding Politics

My interest in politics started five years ago, when in one fell swoop, the School District of Philadelphia closed 23 schools, including Pepper Middle School. I watched as African-American students from Germantown High School were locked out of the School Reform Commission vote, not even permitted to speak to the decision makers. I was horrified. I believe that all communities deserve control over their schools, their health care, and their futures.
And then I joined the post-Trump bump of women who realized there must be more women in politics. Pennsylvania currently ranks 49th out of 50 states for female representation in government. EmergePA introduced me to the next crew of female political leaders in Pennsylvania and taught me how change happens within the Democratic Party on a grassroots level. I won my first election this year as a committee woman for the Cheltenham Democratic Party. As an education activist with the Caucus of Working Educators, a group dedicated to strengthening the power of our public schools and the communities they serve, I have learned the importance of deep organizing to impact change and that real power comes from a strong base of rank and file employees—not from the top down.

Future Plans

I plan to run for any office where I can focus on the importance of fully funding public schools in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is dead last for the percentage of school funding that comes from the state! It will take all of us, including Penn, to turn around the abysmal funding of our schools. I am looking forward to the challenge.