Champion of the Nursing Workforce

Champion of the Nursing Workforce

Paula Nersesian, PhD, MPH, RN, CNE, probably could not have picked a worse time to move to Maine. Nersesian, whose research has included the relationship between loneliness, systemic inflammation, and neighborhood quality as well as health care among refugee populations, suddenly felt cut off as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified in 2020.

She’d come to the woods of Maine years before, intentionally seeking out social isolation as a way to finish a writing project. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. COVID proved a bigger source of separation from her work and her students at the University of Southern Maine. “We were all locked up! There were so many roadblocks to becoming integrated with the community.” And only today, part way through the first normal-feeling semester since COVID began, is Nersesian finally free to navigate—and marvel at—the culture shift.

“I’ve never been any place like this,” she explains of Southern Maine, where she is an assistant professor teaching prelicensure and graduate courses. Nersesian got her own education at places—the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University—that are a world apart, in so many ways. “It is humbling to see what a regional comprehensive university is like, how limited the resources are compared to an R1. At the same time, you see how resourceful people are, and how important this institution is for the students and faculty.”

When Nersesian arrived at Southern Maine, she took on a director position for a large epidemiology services contract for the State of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “I did that work for my first 16 months at Southern Maine on top of my faculty responsibilities, drawing on my decades of public health consulting and management experience working at John Snow, Inc.” 

Yet Johns Hopkins Nursing stays with her.

With a colleague from the Department of Occupational Therapy at Southern Maine and with Lewiston Housing, a public housing authority in nearby Androscoggin County, she wrote a grant for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement Community Aging in Place—Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE), a program co-launched by her PhD advisor, Johns Hopkins School of Nursing Dean Sarah Szanton. “Southern Maine is currently finalizing its subagreement with Lewiston Housing, and we plan to begin implementation [this fall]. This will be the debut of CAPABLE in Maine.”

She sees her good fortune, looking back to the “superb mentorship in research and science at Johns Hopkins that has allowed me to make advances in my career that I would not have been able to make elsewhere.” Even more, she sees an opportunity to make a difference: “Now that I’m here [at Southern Maine], I can see as an educator the important impact I can have on building the nursing workforce. We really need to address this larger problem,” one she’s had her eye on for some time.

“In 2012, I made a big change in my life to help fill the need for nursing faculty.” The faculty shortage has limited how many new nurses can be sent into the workforce. “That’s one of the reasons I went back to Johns Hopkins for my PhD.”

At Southern Maine, she focuses on another issue limiting the workforce, and existing nurses’ ability to do their jobs to their fullest abilities: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). While Maine does have areas where refugees and asylum seekers have settled over the years to escape war or hardship in Africa or elsewhere, its population is largely white and very spread out. Many of her students might not know their own blind spots. “We’re trying to advance DEI so our students at all levels will have the opportunity to talk about and be taught about racial inequalities and the importance of disparities in their nursing practice. They otherwise might not recognize how biases can impact their reactions as nurses.”

Nersesian is eager to report that she is for the first time in her life a labor union member—quite literally paying her dues at Southern Maine.

And yes, it gets darn cold (but almost indescribably beautiful) in the winter:

Dexter Pond in Maine (image by Paula Nersesian)

Nersesian and her husband will take that tradeoff.

“We are putting up solar panels. We built a garage. We have a generator! We are not leaving.”

Good news for the students of the University of Southern Maine and the nursing workforce of the future. — Steve St. Angelo

Click here to learn more about the programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.

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