May 20, 2010 — Yvonne Appea never thought about a career in global health before coming to the University of Virginia.
Armed with an associate's degree in nursing from Marymount University's School of Health Professionals in Arlington, she focused the first 10 years of her career on home care and health care management.
After taking some classes at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Appea – a native of Ghana who has lived in the U.S. since 1988 – entered the U.Va. School of Nursing's "RN to BSN" program. The curriculum is designed to enable registered nurses to earn a bachelor of science in nursing degree; students attend classes all day Tuesdays, and every third week classes are online. Appea completed the program in a year.
"The structure works well for working students and those with young kids like mine," said Appea, who has a 3 1/2-year old, a 22-month-old and another child on the way.
A seminar with associate professor of nursing Sharon Utz was an "eye-opener" and turned her career aspirations to global health, Appea said.
The course, "Transition and Validation," stressed the ways to move forward in a nursing career – and included a systematic exploration for students to identify the right specialty and role for them.
It's a critical element, Utz said. "It's important to find the right 'niche' in nursing so that nurses can make their best contributions to improving care of patients and raising the level of health care in general."
Appea's course with Utz opened her eyes to ways to move the profession forward.
"Her observations about the U.S. and the profession of nursing are insightful and incisive," Utz said. "I particularly remember her reactions to our visit to the state legislature in February of this year for the Virginia Nurses' Association Legislative Day. She was very inspired by seeing democracy in action and thrilled to participate in lobbying state legislators about a bill to overcome barriers to practice for advanced practice nurses."
Through Utz's course, Appea learned about networking and volunteering as ways to explore nursing career options. She volunteers with the Medical Reserve Corps, an organization that coordinates the skills of health care workers eager to share their skills with the community or during times of emergency. She also volunteers in the community at the Henrico County Health Department, where she lives. She recently became a member of the department's Community Action Team that assesses, monitors and works to improve service systems and community resources for women, infants and families. As a member of the team she will assist the health department to improve birth outcomes and systems of care surrounding pregnancy, childbirth and infancy within specific communities and create an action-oriented process for change.
"Since I love to work in the greater community, I find these volunteer opportunities personally fulfilling, and also as a stepping stone to greater opportunities for advancing my career," Appea said.
Appea began forming a vision for how her nursing skills and interest in global health could help those in Ghana.
She returns every few years to visit her parents and is keenly aware of its acute medical needs, and lack of resources and technical knowledge.
One thing she has noticed is the presence of non-governmental organizations and the work they are doing.
"Health care is Africa is poor and the needs are so great – the burden is so great. I feel I can contribute," she said.
Although her goal of returning to U.Va. for graduate school is at least a year off, already she is networking, an approach to career advancement she studied in Utz's course. To help broaden her knowledge about the international scope of global health practice, she visits online sites and is networking at the United Nations, where an uncle works, to learn about its health care initiatives. A U.N. Global Health initiative for new diabetes medication piqued her interest, as there is a high rate of diabetes in Ghana.
Appea said she would love to be part of a program like that and take her knowledge and experience back to Ghana and other developing countries.
"I have passion, sympathy and empathy for them. It's not just like a career. I am helping my people," Appea said.