For Faye Gary, EdD, MS, RN, FAAN, it isn’t her degrees, her CV, or one of her hundred publications she’s authored that she is most proud of. Instead, she is most proud of the investment she has made in other people.
“I think investment in others is how we’ll improve the human condition. And I think that’s how we will make America the country that it was intended to be,” she said.
Faye grew up in rural Florida, going to segregated schools and working on the family’s farm. Her upbringing gave her an incredible work ethic and is responsible for her choice to become a nurse. No matter what, animals—including sick animals—had to be cared for.
Growing up in the Jim Crow era meant her options for college were limited to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). There was only one HBCU in Florida that offered nursing at the time and that was Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU). While other HBCUs offered nursing, they would have required Faye and her family to pay out-of-state tuition as well as have access to reliable transportation.
Looking back now, she doesn’t know where she’d be without FAMU. At a time when Black nurses were not allowed in white hospitals, her FAMU professors “instilled in us the hope that things would change, and that we needed to do the best we could so that we would be able to compete with anyone when the time came,” she said. She graduated in 1962—two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 declared that discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, or national origin and made segregation in public places illegal.
The Civil Rights Act did not mean the hurdles Faye would face because of her race went away, though.
After she graduated from FAMU, she moved home. One day, she and a friend saw a job ad in the American Journal of Nursing for two positions at Syracuse Memorial Hospital in Syracuse, New York. So, on the first of December, Faye arrived in Syracuse on the Greyhound bus with all her belongings. She and her friend were told someone would be picking them up so they could get settled. They waited and waited and waited. Finally, after the bus station’s lobby was cleared out, two people walked up to them—a white man and white lady. After they confirmed their names, the couple was shocked to find the new nurses were Black. Finding housing was complicated, but they finally found a place to room in the house of another Black couple in town.
All the patients and staff at Syracuse Memorial were white, and Faye was “frightened to death.” She had never had a white patient. All of the patients she’d cared for while in nursing school, all the other nurses she’d worked with, and all her professors were Black. After the third or fourth day though, she figured out that you nurse the same way. Blood pressure is still important. Calculating intake and output is still important. The conversations to get the data are the same. What she had to learn was how to operate equipment that she’d never seen. She’d spend hours at the library reading about the pieces of equipment.
When she started working the evening shift, she would come in two hours early to read all the information in the patients’ files to be ready for change-of-shift. Her goal was always to give excellent healthcare. She worked in Syracuse for a year and then decided she had to go to graduate school.
“There was too much I did not know. And,” she added, “Syracuse was very cold.”
She looks back on her time at Syracuse fondly. Working there introduced her to nurses from all over the eastern United States. She found that they all had been exposed to basically the same things she had, even if where they came from was very different. It also affirmed to her that her education was solid and that she could manage just as well as other nurses.
Despite a successful year on the job—she ended as a charge nurse on the night shift—getting accepted into a graduate program was not easy. When those in charge of admissions saw that she had gone to a HBCU, they questioned her competency. Once, she was accepted into a program and was asked to come in for an interview. She took the Greyhound bus and went.
“The conversation was not long, but it was very devastating,” she said. “I was told that my admission had been rescinded because they did not think that I could manage in a classroom with other white nurses.”
She cried all the way home.
When her college roommate told her to come to Chicago, Illinois, to stay with her and that there was an opening on the psychiatry ward, Faye didn’t feel like she had anything to lose. This led her to St. Xavier University. When she started, they had been given a fellowship grant to train nurses for the severely mentally ill. She began her work toward her master’s degree to become a psychiatric nurse with a focus on children, adolescents, and families.
“When you work with children, you work with their families. And you work with communities and community organizations,” she said. “If you work with children and adolescents, it takes you every place—to the preacher, to the priest, to the rabbi, to the juvenile detention center, to the school, to the principal.”
Her class at St. Xavier was small, and she was the only Black student. They embraced her and made her feel comfortable. When the 12 classmates and professors would have weekly lunches, they always made sure that Faye would be welcome wherever they went. If she wasn’t welcome, none of them went.
Her classmates convinced her to join as a founding member of Sigma’s Alpha Omicron Chapter at St. Xavier. Reflecting on what Sigma means to her, Faye related that she was once in a small discussion with poet and activist Maya Angelou. During the discussion, Faye said that the king of ethical principles was justice. Angelou, though, taught her that the king of ethical principles is actually courage. She said, “If you don’t have courage, justice is dead on arrival.”
Courage, one of Sigma’s core values, is what links her to Sigma to this day. It should come first in her opinion—after all, you have to have courage to love.
She’s researched broadly throughout her career. Her most recent opportunity has been to help adolescents in east Cleveland, Ohio—one of the poorest communities in the United States. At Case Western Reserve University, she is the program director for the Provost Scholars Program that brings students from East Cleveland to the Case Western campus twice a week. The program pairs students with faculty and student mentors to prepare them for college and life with a heavy focus on academic excellence as well as social and emotional learning.
Her reminder to everyone is that, “If you have the courage to love yourself [and] to love others, you can teach others how to love themselves and how to move forward. You have to have courage, or it just stalemates and dies. Courage helps you have the motivation and desire to love—to love what you do.”