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Colombia RPCV Kay Chafey develops program to boost number of Native American nurses
Colombia RPCV Kay Chafey develops program to boost number of Native American nurses
Montana nurse develops program to boost number of Native American nurses
by Susan Trossman, RN
Kay Chafey has an explorer's nature: It led her to sign up with the Peace Corps one year out of nursing school; to conduct research on the ethical questions of autonomy, care and justice; and, more recently, to create a program in Montana to recruit Native Americans into nursing school and help them through the experience.
Chafey, PhD, RN, began her nursing career in 1962. That year, she left her home state of Arizona to take a position as a med-surg staff nurse at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center. But her ultimate plan was to travel beyond the borders of the United States. Within a year, she netted an assignment with the Peace Corps that took her to Colombia for two years.
"Kennedy was president at the time. He was selling the idea of service, and I was taken with him," said the Montana Nurses Association (MNA) member. "I also liked the idea of traveling to another country. And putting my nursing skills to work with people other than my own had an appeal."
Her official Peace Corps job was to teach at the Colombian-equivalent of a licensed practical nurse program. What she found herself doing as well, however, was "a little bit of everything else" in her off-hours. For example, she took part in immunization programs, worked with a project to introduce a high-protein flour into the local diet as a nutrition supplement, taught lay midwives, and even helped the health department to persuade people to buy and install inexpensive latrines.
The experience galvanized her commitment to public health and prevention activities.
"Public health was a strong component in my baccalaureate program at Arizona State University," Chafey said. "I had wonderful teachers in my undergraduate program who helped lay the foundation for my interest in and knowledge of public health. But it was my experience in the Peace Corps that made me a true believer in the efficacy and economy of prevention and the contribution it can make to the world's health in the long term. My experience also helped me internalize the essential links between health and basic education.
"In Colombia, I saw how very little in resources could make a big difference," she said. "Kids who should have been walking were not. But after receiving nutrition supplements -- such as flour that cost pennies -- they were walking within weeks. Yet, most people refused to change their dietary habits to incorporate the supplements into their cooking."
So when Chafey returned to the States, she headed first for graduate school in Minnesota, and then back to Arizona, where she took a faculty position teaching public health nursing. Eventually she came to Montana, where she now serves as a full professor at Montana State University-Bozeman's (MSU) College of Nursing.
Over the years, Chafey has had many roles at MSU, including professor, researcher, assistant and associate dean of nursing and acting provost. She temporarily has put her research on the back burner in favor of teaching and working with Native Americans in a program called the Caring for Our Own Project (CO-OP), which she created in the late '90s.
In her role as teacher, she enjoys the opportunity to participate in the intellectual and professional growth of students.
"It's the adventure one shares with students that's exciting -- and like any adventure even the difficulties are memorable," Chafey said.
In her other major role, Chafey strives to ensure the continued success -- and funding -- of CO-OP. The purpose of the program is three-fold: increase the number of Native Americans enrolled in MSU's nursing program; provide them with a strong support network throughout their university experience; and, increase the overall number of Native American registered nurses.
Chafey said she saw the need for this type of program since she began with the College of Nursing as assistant dean 25 years ago.
"As assistant dean, I took on advising Native American students, and I saw so many needs that we were not sensitive to. I saw a lot of potentially good students who went by the wayside because of cultural, economic and social factors. Very seldom was I convinced that the students were not intellectually up for nursing. Actually the opposite was true. I felt like we let these students down when they came here."
Chafey found an opportunity to make the CO-OP project a reality after attending a conference sponsored by the Division of Nursing (Bureau of Health Professions, HRSA) in 1997. The Nurse Leadership '97 Invitational Congress was entitled "Caring for the Emerging Majority: A Blueprint in Action," and it strengthened her resolve to make a difference for Native American students.
"Everything I heard resonated with my experience. So I formed a team and mapped out a project. I wanted CO-OP to be a program for Indian people by Indian people. I felt without a grassroots approach, the program would be gone when funding was gone."
Chafey eventually won a three-year grant from the Division of Nursing, and the program officially began in 1999. So far, the CO-OP team has been successful in more than doubling Native American enrollment in the nursing program. There are now 26 Native Americans among 500 nursing undergraduates and the enrollment is expected to reach 40 by fall 2002. This will represent 8 percent of the college's undergraduate enrollment. (The percent of Native Americans in the Montana population is 6.2 percent.)
The project's success is due, in part, to strong partnerships with Montana reservations, Native American nurse mentors, public and tribal community college leaders, the Indian Health Service and other key community leaders. The components of the program include providing students with financial support, both in dollars and money management advice, a strong social support network and various formal and informal academic opportunities throughout their college careers.
The CO-OP team also recently began a program called "Bridge to Success," where students come to MSU prior to the start of their first semester to take seminars aimed at sharpening skills in basic science, computing, writing and studying, as well as learn how to successfully navigate life at the university.
As for future goals, Chafey wants to boost CO-OP's efforts to reach out to middle and high school students and counselors to promote health care careers among Native Americans. She also wants to bring a Native American nurse on to MSU's nursing faculty.
"I grew up as a minority person -- a non-Hispanic white in a mostly Hispanic mining town," she said. "I've always felt comfortable with people of different ethnicities. I greatly admire the Indian people for their ability to survive and thrive. And, I have a sense that I have the trust of the students and the people I work with."
She certainly has the admiration of her nurse colleagues.
"Kay is one of the brightest and most talented people I have ever met," said MSU College of Nursing Dean Lea Acord, PhD, RN, an MNA member. "The depth and breadth of her experience is unparalleled. She's so well-regarded in this university that she's being always asked to represent nursing on university committees and with special projects.
"Her experience and knowledge is not only in nursing. She has a vast understanding of all aspects of higher education. She's incredibly valuable to the college and the university."
Former colleague Kathleen Long, PhD, RNCS, FAAN, now dean of University of Florida's College of Nursing, describes Chafey as innovative and creative. She cites the CO-OP program as a good example of those abilities.
Said Long, "She's devoted to excellence in nursing education and practice and has a special commitment to students and patients who are vulnerable and under-served."
Chafey is successful in working with other populations, because she's very open to other people and non-judgmental in her approach, Long added. And one of her strongest assets, is her sense of humor.
"She really has the best sense of humor of any nurse I know, and she uses it in a skillful way to help students and colleagues -- and even maybe herself -- get through stressful and challenging times."
Chafey plans to retire in a few years from nursing -- a career she believes has been a good choice.
"I am curious about a lot of things, and you can't be interested in public health without a broad focus," Chafey said. "Nursing -- by virtue of what it is -- has allowed me the latitude to explore and be involved in a wide and diverse range of issues and pursuits."
It's unlikely she's going to give up exploring any time soon.
Susan Trossman is the senior reporter for The American Nurse.