Debra Barksdale strives to improve health care
Debra J. Barksdale, Ph.D., FNP-BC, ANP-BC, CNE, FAANP, FAAN, describes herself as an introvert. One would never imagine that based on the impact she is making nationally in nursing education.
A renowned educator, researcher, practitioner and advocate for improving health care, Barksdale is a highly requested keynote speaker at major nursing conferences and other health care gatherings nationwide. She has been the voice of the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF), having served as its president for two years, president-elect for two years and two terms on the Board of Directors. She has also served on the Veteran’s Choice Act Blue Ribbon Panel and is the only nurse on the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) Board of Governors appointed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office under the Obama Administration.
In all of these roles she has been a passionate, vocal leader. But there’s another side to her.
“Sometimes after talking to a lot of people I need to go somewhere and have my quiet moments. Someone once told me that’s where I get my energy from,” said Barksdale, professor and associate dean of academic affairs at the VCU School of Nursing.
Jean Giddens, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, professor and dean, said Barksdale is truly an innovative thought leader in nursing education.
“Her stellar record of working to transform health care will be a huge asset to shaping our current and future academic programs,” she said.
For Barksdale, VCU was the right fit when she joined in January of 2016.
“I was looking for an opportunity to grow in my career, share my knowledge and help another school,” she said. “VCU seemed like it was that kind of place. It felt more collegial and like people were open to new ways of improving the school and the educational programs.”
Coming to VCU also felt like returning home since she grew up in the rural community of Nathalie in Halifax County. During her childhood, Barksdale said a number of factors influenced her to become a nurse and educator. She recalled watching Julia, a weekly TV sitcom that starred Diahann Carroll as a young nurse. It was one of the first TV shows to depict an African American woman in a non-stereotypical role.
“She was my motivation,” said Barksdale, noting that she knew by age nine she wanted to be a nurse.
An early love for learning led her to immerse her self in reading whatever she could get her hands on when she didn’t have any books, including canned food labels. By the time Barksdale was in junior high school, her mother purchased a set of encyclopedias.
“Boy, I was in heaven then,” she said. “I used to just read, read and re-read them.”
She also used to make her siblings play school with her.
“I was the teacher and they used to have to sit there and listen to me,” she said, chuckling.
After graduating from Halifax County Senior High School, Barksdale began her path to become a nurse. She obtained a B.S. in nursing from the University of Virginia, worked at UVA Hospital and later obtained a master’s degree in nursing with an FNP concentration at Howard University, where she accepted her first teaching position.
She also obtained a post-master’s certificate in teaching from the University of Pennsylvania and later a Ph.D. in nursing from the University of Michigan.Several career moves later, Barksdale joined the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Nursing as assistant professor and coordinator of the FNP program. She rose through the ranks to become the school’s first minority tenured full professor. She was director of its Doctor of Nursing Practice program before coming to VCU.
Recently invested as the school’s Nursing Alumni Endowed Professor, Barksdale said she hopes to make the VCU School of Nursing a premier destination for prospective students.
“I want our school to become the place where everyone wants to come for a nursing education,” she said.
Looking ahead, Barksdale plans to publish the data from her previous National Institutes of Health-funded study “Hypertension in Black Americans: Environment, Behavior, and Biology,” the focus of her research.
A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Executive Fellow Alumna, she also expects to continue her involvement in shaping nursing’s future. One effort she proudly noted is a program she created to mentor six minority nursing faculty members at universities across the nation.
“They call themselves ‘The Delta Six’ and all are doctorally prepared,” she said. “They call me ‘momma Deb’ and some of them are close to my age.”
Barksdale also plans to continue serving on national boards and committees.
“For me I bring a unique perspective and a lot of my perspective comes from being a nurse of color – a person of color,” she said. “I didn’t grow up privileged so I can understand multiple perspectives.”
“When these opportunities come along and they’re in line with my values, I put myself out there,” she added. “I’m always trying to do good work.”