Nursing School's Randa Samaha Turns Tragedy to Advocacy

May 7, 2009 — University of Virginia nursing student Randa Samaha knows what family means. The middle child in a Northern Virginia family of Lebanese descent, Samaha describes hers as having a "strong base and feeling that we can do anything with the support of each other."

That can-do attitude served her well in the wake of a horrible tragedy. On April 16, 2007, Reema Samaha, Randa's younger sister, was killed in the Virginia Tech massacre.

Samaha turned that life experience into "an opportunity not to succumb to tragedy, but to change and turn something terrible into good," she said.

Upon returning to Charlottesville after her sister's funeral, Samaha was bolstered by the outpouring of love and support of her U.Va. family at the School of Nursing. "My room was filled with cards and gifts. They really embraced me," she said.

She attended the candlelight vigil on the Lawn to honor the 32 victims at Tech and a "Lie-In" to protest weak gun-control laws, but wanted to do more to honor the memory of her sister.

"I was not about to sit in silence and let it be," Samaha said. "Things had to change. I cannot imagine the loss without some kind of gain."

With a small group of friends, she came up with an idea to create "Students for Gun-Free Schools."

True to her nursing role as a caregiver, a philosophy of prevention shaped the group's focus. She said she wanted to create an organization that would be "an active, positive response, not reactive," to channel energies for change.

Students for Gun Free Schools opposes efforts that would force universities and colleges to allow students to carry concealed handguns on their campuses. It adopted the motto, "Armed with knowledge, not guns."

In little more than a year, the effort, which is based on education about gun laws and promoting colleges and universities as safe sanctuaries for learning, has spread to 34 schools as far as California, Massachusetts and Texas.

She credits the organization's growth to the use of social media, such as Facebook, e-mail and texting campaigns, and other technology, as well networking among friends to recruit campus leaders who will promote student activism. 

A major sign of the group's success was a walkout and rally staged at a Texas university in which hundreds of students participated.

"It shows that what we are doing is working," Samaha said.

On a personal level, she has befriended many of her sister's Virginia Tech friends. Out of this tragedy, "They are one gift that I feel is priceless," she said.

Samaha credits her experience with changing her outlook on life — seeing the bigger picture and reinforcing a positive point of view. That resiliency and perspective will be a key component of the nursing skills she plans to bring to her job in the fall at the pediatric intensive care unit at Duke Children's Hospital and Health Center in Durham, N.C., where she will care for newborns and their families.

"It is so important to see the positive side of nursing and to help patients go forward. I like the idea of working with the whole family," Samaha said.

— By Jane Ford