International nursing students win awards

Awarding winning nurses, from left: Komaldeep Taak, Dahabo Ali, Maryia Nikitsina, Olga Petrovskaya and Jie Lu

Five students in York’s new program for internationally trained nurses have won internship awards at Toronto hospitals. The money is nice, admit the recipients of the $3,000 and $5,000 awards, but the recognition is even better.

For more than a year, these women from Somalia, Russia, Belarus, India and China have struggled to upgrade their nursing credentials and master English. They are part of the first cohort of 30 who enrolled in York’s 20-month degree program. The experience has been intense and these already highly qualified five have wrestled with self-doubt and uncertainty — and English.

Now they are brimming with confidence again. Hospitals have picked them out of dozens of applicants for internships – and may well offer them permanent jobs. The fact that impartial professionals – in addition to adoring teachers – have recognized their capability has filled them with pride and hope for the future.

Maryia Nikitsina didn’t expect to win the Canadian Nurses Foundation Award and deliberately put it out of her mind after applying for it to avoid disappointment. At 36, the former nursing manager and lawyer who came to Canada on her own from Belarus has devoted every hour of every day to do well in this course. When she won the award, she felt validated. “It’s official,” said Nikitsina, “somebody say to you, ‘You are a good girl.’” She has worked hard to master nursing theory and philosophy, which weren’t part of the Belarus nursing curriculum. Nikitsina took law in Belarus because she loves learning and there were no opportunities to advance in nursing. She is putting her law degree to good use volunteering for the Registered Nursing Association of Ontario.

Jie Lu, on the other hand, felt sure she would win an Oncology Education Award from the Ontario branch of the Canadian Cancer Society. “I know award is just for me,” she said, beaming. The 32-year-old former nursing manager from China couldn’t have uttered such a sentence two years ago when she arrived in Canada to join her husband. But intensive language training has restored her confidence. “I believe this program and award have opened new horizon for me. I can continue my career in Canada again.”

Dahabo Ali has tried to quit the program several times but stayed at the urging of teachers and fellow students. At 43, the divorced mother of six children from Somalia, who has been in Canada seven years, has found language the biggest barrier to her return to nursing. Winning an Oncology Education Award from the Ontario branch of the Canadian Cancer Society is a dream come true. Ali has 15 years experience: she was a nursing manager overseeing health services for pilgrims of the Haj in Saudi Arabia; she was a nurse in maternity, surgery and oncology units of Somali hospitals; and she is a midwife. “There is no chemotherapy in my country,” she said. “I was dreaming to work one day in a chemotherapy unit for oncology. I’m so happy.”

Likewise for Komaldeep Taak. At 30, she is the youngest of the five award winners and has four years experience working in the post-operative surgery ward of a cancer hospital in India. “I always wanted to be in oncology,” said the surprised winner of an Oncology Education Award from the Ontario branch of the Canadian Cancer Society. “When I was packing my things for here, I was so scared,” she said. Within 30 days of landing in Toronto to join her husband, she started in York’s program. She has found new respect for herself in a profession that is not as revered in India as it is in Canada. “This award has changed my thinking. I can think about my career in oncology and my future. Now I feel proud of myself as a nurse.”

For Olga Petrovskaya, 34, winning the Hospital for Sick Children Education Scholarship will put this pediatrician from Russia back where she wants to be – working with children. Also a trained nurse, she came to Canada three years ago via the United States with her Russian-trained surgeon husband and son, who is now five. “Receiving this award is a great honour,” said Petrovskaya, who looks forward to doing her practicum at Sick Kids. “It’s a step into the future.” Her future will likely include graduate degrees in nursing and possibly teaching. “In our countries,” she said, speaking for the others as well, “it’s not possible that nurses are influencing decision makers. Here it can be a real strategy.”

Nineteen months ago, these five could have simply passed an exam required by the College of Nurses of Ontario to qualify to work in the province. Since 2005, however, registered nurses require a bachelor of  science degree in nursing to practise in Ontario. They all had to go back to school.

By March 2005, York had set up a bridging program for those internationally educated nurses who needed upgrading to the new standards. Within a month, 30 had registered for the intensive 20-month Post-RN BScN Program for Internationally Educated Nurses, which includes rigorous language training from the York University English Language Institute. This first cohort will complete the program in December. A second cohort of 35 started in January this year and another 180 are on the waiting list for the next intake.

Sue Coffey (right), who led the development and now coordinates the Program for Internationally Educated Nurses, has nothing but praise for the five award winners. Nikitsina, Ali, Lu, Taak and Petrovskaya applied on their own. They had to create portfolios and write letters expressing why they wanted the awards and the practicums that came with the awards. “It shows the incredible strength they have and commitment to their profession,” says Coffey. Winning is “in so many ways about being accepted and encouraged as they move forward.”

Coffey says that in their letters, the award winners acknowledged the program and support they’ve received at York. “They have learned from us but we have also learned from them,” she said. With their input, she and her colleagues continue to fine tune a new and evolving program to respond more precisely to the needs of students who come from such diverse backgrounds. For Coffey, the teaching experience has been “deeply rewarding and joyous”.

She and Eva Peisachovich, a part-time faculty member teaching in the program, both admire their students’ perseverance and resilience. “We knew from newcomers that it is easy to be diminished in a short period or time,” said Coffey. “These students take a big risk in coming back to school.”

“These students are passionate about nursing,” said Peisachovich. “These awards are an acknowledgement that they are welcomed and that what they bring is valuable.”

Like the students, “York took a chance on an innovative new program that changes lives,” said Coffey.