Years before she emigrated to the U.S. from her native Colombia, Helena Pinzon looked forward to the day she could “become a nurse in America.”

Despite holding almost a quarter century of nursing experience in her native country, Pinzon said her first few years in the U.S. were filled with frustration. With limited English proficiency and no knowledge of the bureaucratic challenges nurses seeking licensure face, Pinzon feared her dream of becoming a nurse in the U.S. might be beyond her reach.

“There were so many barriers,” Pinzon said. “I said, ‘Maybe I can’t do this, maybe it’s too hard.’”

But in 2011, three years after arriving in the U.S., Pinzon found the Chicago Bilingual Nurse Consortium, a nonprofit organization that helps foreign-born, internationally educated nurses obtain their nursing licenses in Illinois. With the organization’s help, Pinzon passed the the National Council RN Licensure Examination in September 2013, and soon after took a job as an RN in the Family Birth Center at Mercy Hospital & Medical Center on Chicago’s south side.

Since its founding in 2002 by former Executive Director Mary Lebold, EdD, MS, RN, the Chicago Bilingual Nurse Consortium has helped more than 600 nurses, in situations similar to Pinzon, obtain their nursing licenses and enter the nursing ranks.

  • Growing need

    Sandy Kubala, who now serves as the CBNC’s chief executive, said the group’s purpose is to address a growing need for bilingual, “culturally competent” nurses in healthcare facilities in Chicago and throughout the U.S. “It is important at these difficult times there be nurses at the bedside who are fluent in their language and are also aware of the cultural needs of patients that are extremely ill or facing life-threatening illnesses,” Kubala said.

    Operating from its base at Mercy Hospital & Medical Center, the CBNC has helped internationally educated nurses from more than 50 countries, including many from Central and South American nations, as well as Poland, Iran, Phillippines, Nigeria, Korea and other countries, overcome the barriers to obtaining licensure in the U.S.

    The consortium helps these immigrant nurses speak and write better English, gain certification of their academic transcripts from their home countries and better understand the NCLEX-RN exam and licensure process. Some of the organization’s upcoming events include workshops and classes on NCLEX preparation, pharmacology, English language and writing, in addition to mentoring and peer support.

    Many of these immigrant nurses who may have been educated and credentialed in other countries and may have even practiced for a number of years, but because of various barriers, cannot obtain the documentation they need to work as nurses in the U.S., said Paula Schipiour, MSN, RN, director of marketing and development and an instructor for the CBNC. As a result, they often end up taking lower-level jobs in healthcare or other fields which do not begin to scratch the surface of their training and experience. “They’re untapped resources,” Schipiour said.

  • Overcoming challenges

    Ricardo Bermudez, 55, originally of Puerto Rico, and Karen McShane, 24, of Chile, were educated and worked as nurses in their home countries. Upon immigrating to Chicago, they too experienced the frustration of not being able to practice in the U.S. Both have said the consortium has proven valuable in moving them toward their goals, helping them obtain certification of their academic transcripts from their native countries and improving their English proficiency to prepare them for the NCLEX.

    “Initially, I couldn’t understand why this was happening, because Puerto Rico’s schools are within the U.S.,” Bermudez said. “The Chicago Bilingual Nurse Consortium has been great, helping me to see, if I’m going to provide care, the state needs to see I can do it in English.”

    McShane came to Chicago in June 2013 after marrying her husband, a U.S. citizen, in Chile three months earlier. “I thought I’d have to quit my career and start at the bottom,” she said.

    But since her husband helped her connect with the CBNC, McShane said she has gained a renewed optimism. In addition to such practial assistance as English instruction and academic credit evaluation, she said the consortium has given her a clearer picture of what she needs to do to become a nurse in the U.S.

    “You see all you have to do, and it’s overwhelming,” McShane said. “But now, I feel like I’m going to be a nurse again.”

    The group’s work is funded by grants from a number of public and private sources. Schipiour and Kubala said the CBNC continues to search for more partners who recognize the value of what the organization is doing to provide more skilled nurses for local healthcare organizations and to help immigrant nurses whose talents might otherwise be wasted.
    “We get skilled, bilingual nurses to work in our communities,” said Schipiour said. “They get to be RNs in America.”


To learn more about the CBNC, visit