Dr. Ora StricklandDr. Ora Strickland introduced herself on the first day of class, but before she even started her lecture she realized her new students were crying. She didn’t know why.

At the time, in the late 1970s, Strickland was an assistant professor who taught research and perinatal courses in UNC Greensboro’s newly developed Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. Despite being in her 20s, she was already a nationally recognized researcher and the only faculty member in the UNCG School of Nursing with a PhD.

Strickland didn’t know what she had done to make a class full of graduate students in their 30s and 40s so sad.

“When I walked in, I introduced myself. I said, ‘I’m Dr. Strickland. I’m your professor,’ and I passed out the syllabus,” said Strickland, who was raised in Mount Airy, N.C. “And all of the people started crying, so I stopped the class and said, ‘Why are you crying?’”

Strickland’s students admitted they felt bad that they were older than her, some by more than a decade, and they were just starting the MSN program while she had a PhD. They didn’t know Strickland would also be one of the youngest fellows inducted into the American Academy of Nursing for her contributions to the nursing profession at age 29 in 1978.

Over the past four decades, Strickland has gone from being “a little young girl” — as she was often called early in her career — to the dean of Florida International University’s Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing and Health Sciences. The UNCG alumna has also coauthored a series of highly popular textbooks, Measurement in Nursing and Health Research.

More importantly, as Black History Month wraps up, Strickland stands out as a nurse educator who ignored discrimination from her colleagues to become an important figure in the nursing profession. She was a faculty member in the UNCG School of Nursing from 1973-80.

“I was just doing what I know needed to happen for nursing and for patients and for students. That was my focus. I was not about being first at anything. I was about making a difference for the quality of care of patients, for the quality of education of students, and for the nation.” — Dr. Ora Strickland

Strickland took a couple of years off as a full-time faculty member in the School of Nursing to earn her PhD in Child Development and Family Relations from UNCG in 1977. At the time, there was no such thing as a PhD in nursing. UNCG admitted its first class of doctoral nursing students in Fall 2005.

“Back then, I had a lot of problems in nursing because nurses felt I was too young to have a PhD. It was a real problem,” Strickland said. “They didn’t feel that anyone in their 20s should have a PhD.”

Strickland experienced discrimination as a young African-American woman who grew up in the segregated South. She said she often heard remarks early in her career from physicians, fellow faculty members, and other national nursing officials who took issue with her accomplishments at such a young age and the fact that she had a PhD.

Strickland said she was asked to leave the National Black Nurses Association in 1978 because a top official didn’t feel she was “one of them” with her PhD. She was invited to return to the association in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, she ignored comments said about her in hospitals and at national conferences and instead focused on her teaching and research.

As a faculty member at the University of Maryland in the 1980s, Strickland taught UNCG School of Nursing Dean Robin Remsburg, who was a PhD student at the time. Remsburg took Strickland’s Family Theories course and used Strickland’s measurement textbook in her PhD program.

“She was a well-respected nurse scientist,” Remsburg said. “We enjoyed her class.”

Strickland was one of 10 children raised on her family’s farm in Mount Airy. Her father, James, was a large tobacco and poultry farmer. Strickland, however, became interested in nursing as a kid because of the collection of medical textbooks that her mother, Jennie, kept in the house.

“They had 10 children. Anytime any of us got sick my mom hit the medical textbooks and read what she thought was going on,” Strickland said. “They’d take us to the doctor, but she always checked behind the physicians.”

Strickland started picking up the medical textbooks on her own and reading them when she was 12. As a teenager, she knew she wanted to someday become a nurse who specialized in pediatrics and obstetrics. She had an interest in mothers and their children.

Strickland was the valedictorian of the final graduating class at the segregated J.J. Jones High School in 1966 before the Mount Airy school closed. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from North Carolina A&T State University in 1970 and spent one year as an instructor there before joining UNCG’s faculty.

“To be honest, I have been actively involved in shaping wherever I was working,” Strickland said. “And faculty need to understand that is part of their responsibility and role, not only to help students shape their lives as professionals but to shape the nursing profession itself.”

Story by Alex Abrams/School of Nursing

Photography by Florida International University

Videography by Plaza Health Network