From the shores of the Red Sea in East Africa to the SouthCoast of Massachusetts lies a world of differences. For Helen Teklehaimanot ’21, those differences have meant a world of opportunity.
After immigrating to the United States just eight years ago from Eritrea, Teklehaimanot enrolled as a nursing major at UMass Dartmouth in the fall of 2016. She took some sociology courses and was inspired to double major in Nursing and Sociology & Anthropology, unheard of due to the rigor of the nursing curriculum and the demands of clinicals. In another amazing academic feat, Teklehaimanot is also an Honors College student who completed her senior year while she and her husband were expecting their first child.
Teklehaimanot’s family helped her adjust to the U.S.
Her adjustment to the United States was not easy. In high school, she tried to fit in and she was homesick. Thanks to the support of her extended family and devoted father, Teklehaimanot persevered.
“It was quite an adjustment considering I did not speak any English and understood very little. It was shocking in so many ways, starting from the culture to the lifestyle as it's extremely different from what I knew,” said Teklehaimanot. “High school is challenging for any teenager, particularly for an immigrant who stood out due to the language and culture barrier.”
While her mother and siblings remained in Eritrea, Teklehaimanot’s cousins in the U.S. helped her learn English, complete her homework, and adjust to a new country and life by taking her out to explore different activities. Her father also assisted her with her studies and provided resources such as tutoring to help her with classes. “He would take me out every weekend to show me something new and exciting,” said Teklehaimanot. “Also, he took me to Eritrean events in our Eritrean Community Center here in Boston whenever I got homesick. I love that my father is sensitive and full of answers because that helped me adjust more than anything.”
When it was time to apply to college, Teklehaimanot chose UMass Dartmouth based on the reputation of the Nursing program. “I had heard from family, friends, and others that the nursing program was great. The tuition was reasonable enough and the distance from my home was perfect. I could visit whenever I wanted to and it was far enough that I could focus on my education," she said.
Overlapping study of the social determinants of health led Teklehaimanot to double major
Teklehaimanot originally minored in Sociology & Anthropology, but after a couple of courses, she became fascinated with its focus on social issues and social behavior. “It provided me with a broader perspective on patient care because I gained an in-depth understanding of all the social forces that impact the patients I will come across,” said Teklehaimanot.
“Patient advocacy is a critical piece of beside nursing, but also beyond the bedside, especially when trying to address these larger socioeconomic issues that significantly influence patient care. Social forces that impact a patient’s health include class, race, culture, educational status, place of residence, politics as they affect healthcare policy, budget allocation for healthcare, and the economic system affecting the cost of healthcare. We have discussed some of these issues at length in several of my sociology and anthropology courses. Also, in my nursing courses, we discussed social determinants of health, which overlap with the social forces, including economic statistics, access to healthcare, community and neighborhood resources, and education,” Teklehaimanot said.
While managing a double major, Teklehaimanot still found time to get involved on campus. She was the hunger and homelessness campaign coordinator for MassPirg, collecting food and clothing donations and creating awareness of these issues in the U.S. She was also paired with an international student to help her navigate through the Honors College. She is a member of Sigma Theta Tau, the nursing honor society.
Her Honors thesis, funded by the Office of Undergraduate Research, used Qualtrics to examine nursing students’ and faculty attitudes toward complementary and alternative medicine based on one of her sociology classes. “I became intrigued about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) because its use is increasing in Western societies, including ours. CAM is a form of healing embedded in the local culture and provides a holistic outlook on health, illness, and treatment. My research found that there is a positive attitude from nursing students and nursing faculty toward CAM, and they would highly recommended it to family, friends, and patients,” Teklehaimanot said.
Teklehaimanot plans a future career in public health
“I have become passionate about patient advocacy and improving our healthcare system to better serve everyone,” she said. “I would love nothing more than to contribute to improving public health through advocacy and policy reform. My plan is to start working in an acute healthcare setting because I love providing care at the bedside and getting to know patients. However, my ultimate goal is to become a public health nurse at a public health agency or organization in my community in the next three years.
“It would allow me to help improve the health of my community by helping to create health policies or implementing those already created at the community level. There is significant health disparity among communities of color that need to be addressed, and the cost of healthcare is another issue that needs attention. However, what needs immediate attention are the opioid crisis in our country and mental health issues. I am particularly concerned about these two issues and would like to address them at the community level” Teklehaimanot added.
As she prepares to graduate in a few weeks, Teklehaimanot said, “UMass Dartmouth has been an amazing experience that shaped me to be the person I am today. It was truly a time of not only academic growth, but tremendous personal growth. It taught me so much about myself and gave me an opportunity to reflect on my goals and priorities. Also, it was an experience that allowed me to meet so many wonderful people and create a lifetime friendship.”