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Dividends of peace: Preparing Peace Corps volunteers for nursing careers

To read the UAB Magazine article by Jo Lynn Orr click here.

The two years Andrea Torre spent in Dimbwe Village in southern Zambia changed her life. Now she has come to the UAB School of Nursing (SON) to learn the skills she needs to spend the rest of her career helping to change others’ lives.

peace_news1From Zambia to Alabama: The Peace Corps Fellows program at the UAB School of Nursing offers financial assistance to returned volunteers such as Andrea Torre (above) as they pursue new careers in health care. As a Peace Corps volunteer from 2006 to 2008, Torre was officially tasked with helping to teach women in Dimbwe about HIV prevention. But once she learned the local language and got to know the people, Torre took on a larger role. “I worked with women’s groups on income-generating activities, taught math at the local school, and worked with the local clinic to vaccinate and weigh children five years old and younger,” she says.

Collaborating with the village’s parent-teacher association, Torre wrote a grant proposal and received $3,000. “Over the next eight months, a preschool was built with local materials and local labor, a local teacher was hired, and 45 children each year will now receive an early education,” she says.

After returning to her hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, Torre worked as a program director at a local nonprofit organization while she settled on a future career. “I went back and forth between teaching and nursing,” she says. She decided on the latter, because “I knew with nursing I could educate and heal.”

 

Looking for a top nursing school and the chance to experience a new culture, Torre decided to enroll in the Accelerated Master’s in Nursing Pathway at the UAB School of Nursing (SON), which will allow her to earn her R.N. license and a graduate degree in little more than two years. The SON offered another advantage: As a member of the national Peace Corps Fellows program, the school extends financial assistance to returning Peace Corps volunteers.

Global Leaders

In 2013, the School of Nursing will celebrate its 20th anniversary as a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Center on International Nursing. The center, directed by School of Nursing Dean Doreen Harper, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., promotes global partnerships to develop the nursing workforce both in the United States and abroad, improve health, and transform health-care delivery. “Global leadership is an integral part of our strategic plan and the very fabric of the school,” Harper says.  

Leaders in Training

Torre is exactly the type of motivated, experienced student that the school was hoping to attract when it established its Peace Corps Fellows program in 2010. It is one of only three such programs offered by nursing schools in the United States.

“In addition to being able to recruit excellent students, the program also enriches the school overall,” says Lynda Wilson, Ph.D., the deputy director of the school’s Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Center on International Nursing. (See “Global Leaders,” left.)

“Each fellowship recipient is asked to give a presentation for faculty and students about his or her Peace Corps experience and the implications of his or her service on the nursing profession,” Wilson explains. The Peace Corps Fellows program also allows students to apply the knowledge and skills they developed overseas in service learning projects with underserved communities in Alabama, she adds.

Learning How to Help

Erin Gockel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the SON in May 2012, came to UAB after serving in the post-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan from 2006 to 2008. Gockel says her motivation for joining the Peace Corps was “to get involved with a community and really learn what was going on—to find out what the people needed and how I could truly be of help.”

peace_news2Erin Gockel, who served in the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan, intends to become a travel nurse along with her husband, a fellow Peace Corps veteran. Erin Gockel, who served in the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan, intends to become a travel nurse along with her husband, a fellow Peace Corps veteran.Gockel spent much of her time in Azerbaijan teaching health-education classes. In her presentation to faculty and students at the SON, Gockel described how she learned to always be on alert, to take advantage of teaching opportunities, and to get to know the people she worked with and to consider the impact of their backgrounds.

“Women in Azerbaijan don’t really talk about sex or sexual history or anything related to that aspect of life,” she says. “They don’t have access to health-education classes, the Internet, or any books that contain female health information. So I felt I was able to fill a gap in that area.”

Gockel, who is currently working as an R.N. intern at UAB, intends to become a travel nurse along with her husband, a fellow Peace Corps veteran. “We really want to work abroad,” she says. “Nursing gives you that opportunity. And when you are working in developing countries, nursing skills strengthen health-education efforts.”

peace_news3Bryant Laney, who is earning a bachelor's degree in nursing after Peace Corps service in Zambia,
is eager to apply his medical knowledge in further work overseas.

Communication Is Power

Bryant Laney, who entered UAB’s Peace Corps Fellows program in fall 2011, also intends to prepare himself for more service abroad with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. He was involved in preventive health education in Zambia from 2003 to 2005, and that experience provided “100 percent” of his motivation to enroll at the SON, he says. “I was around quite a few AIDS patients in Zambia who were dying, and I didn’t have a clue about how to talk to them or what to say,” he recalls. “I want to work overseas again, but this time with medical knowledge.”

Torre, whose master’s specialty is in primary women’s health, wants to implement her new medical knowledge in a clinic focusing on primary prevention of issues relating to reproductive health. “My Peace Corps experience prepared me for this life,” she says. “Communication and compassion are significant elements in a good nurse, and my time as a Peace Corps volunteer definitely contributed to enhancing these skills.”

—Written by Jo Lynn Orr