This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services
. The author of this post is Benjamin Abel
Kim Larson, left, Ganna Rozumna and Natalia Sira discuss a nursing collaboration project. Larson is the first member of East Carolina University's College of Nursing to receive a Fulbright Scholar award. (ECU photo by Rhett Butler)
Kim Larson, an East Carolina University professor of nursing, learned in February that she would be the first member of the College of Nursing to receive a Fulbright Scholar award, a prestigious federally-funded award that will support her research on how health care professionals can best support the needs of the war-driven diaspora from Ukraine.
Larson's Fulbright project, a partnership with Polish nursing colleagues, will determine how to best prepare European nurses to care for the Ukrainians who were forced to flee their homes after the Russian invasion in February 2022.
Bimbola Akindate, the dean of the College of Nursing, takes particular pride in Larson's work. ECU's motto is 'Service', Akintade noted, and Larson is shifting that spirit of service from ECU's campus in eastern North Carolina to the global stage.
"What Dr. Larson has done in securing the first Fulbright award in the history of the College of Nursing is to prove to the nation, and the world, the incredible value that Pirate nurses provide to our profession here at home and across the world,"
Ruie Pritchard, Fulbright Association North Carolina Chapter co-president, an emeritus professor of education at NC State and former Fulbright Scholar, said that the Fulbright experience is life-changing and with 130 institutions of higher education across North Carolina, the state has the expertise to effect real change in the world.
"Fulbrighters bring home to our state as much as they contribute to others,"
Pritchard said. "They do not just work in their scholarly areas, they also become involved in the community where they go to serve as ambassadors of North Carolina and the nation. This personal contact helps our international partners to form a positive view of our state and all that it offers."
Larson first came to North Carolina to complete her Master's degree in public health at UNC Chapel Hill after working for several years with the Peace Corps in Honduras. She had no real ties to Central America before finding a phone number to a Peace Corps recruiter and placing a cold call.
"Back when I joined, it was all by telephone. I called Washington and they gave me three choices: Mauritania, Honduras and Bahrain,"
Larson said. "That was an easy decision because I already knew Spanish. I wanted to go to a country where I would at least have a foundation and then Peace Corps - they drill the language into you."
When her two-year stint in Honduras wrapped up she found opportunities to continue her outreach to Latinos in need among migrant and seasonal populations in Newton Grove, North Carolina, rather than overseas.
After more schooling and work as a nurse supporting community health, Larson took a job teaching at ECU and met a faculty member who had also worked in Central America. In 2008, she carried out the first community health nursing cultural immersion program in Guatemala. The pair partnered with a community-based organization, Centro Llingüístico La Unión, in Guatemala for 12 years until the program fizzled in the face of travel restrictions forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. It picked up again in 2022.
Partnering with Poland
A few years ago Larson started to seriously research the requirements to apply for a Fulbright award. The one criterion that kept surfacing was an established relationship with a person and organization in a foreign country. In 2019, Larson was included as a health sciences member of a grant request filed by ECU's Office of Global Affairs for an international university-to-university outreach and collaboration program. As soon as the program started to take shape and build steam COVID-19 put the brakes on any meaningful interaction.
Lucyna Płaszewska-Żywko, a nurse who teaches at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, was part of the partnership and worked through the pandemic to stay in touch with her peers at ECU. Once the pandemic subsided enough for Larson and Płaszewska-Żywko to see opportunities to rekindle their partnership, they dove headlong into planning again.
"Both of us were disappointed but we kept in touch and we said, 'We'll do this again,'"
Larson said. "2020, 2021 passed by, but we stayed in touch and we were going to develop a course and we wrote a grant together."
And then the invasion of Ukraine happened. Larson said it became painfully obvious that their focus would have to shift to support the humanitarian crisis that was bleeding across borders throughout Europe.
In December 2022 the U.S. Fulbright Commission told her she was recommended for Poland. After an interview with the Polish Fulbright Commission, on Valentines Day 2023 she was formally notified that her project was approved.
Established in 1946, the Fulbright Program lists its mission as being "devoted to increasing mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Fulbright is the world's largest and most diverse international educational exchange program."
At the end of February 2023 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported more than 1.5 million Ukrainians are under the protection of the Polish government and more than 8 million refugees are spread across all of Europe. News reports suggest about 113,000 Ukrainian refugees have made it to the US with many more Americans volunteering to support those displaced by the war.
"It just made sense to focus our energy and talents on intercultural nursing care and making sure that refugees had quality healthcare,"
Larson said. "It's going to take a year because it just got started, but that's my Fulbright."
Larson loosely equates the pre-invasion shift of migrant workers from Ukraine across the shared border with Poland to the way Mexican and Central American migrant workers cross into the U.S. for work. Some stay and some return home, but the 8 million Ukrainians displaced by the invasion is more than the Polish health care system can manage.
"There are a lot of countries that don't know the culture, values and practices of Ukrainians. We're trying to document those, in online modules, and make them available to schools of nursing and the health care workers who currently provide care for Ukrainian refugees,"
She is working with an academic publishing house to create a free online education course that will be available in a host of languages.
Larson's project is titled "Intercultural Care Guidance for the Health and Wellbeing of Refugees from Ukraine"
and is segmented into three parts:
"The actual Fulbright is one year, but I see this as a three-year plan,"
- Intercultural virtual exchange courses between nurses from Poland and ECU will research best practices around the world with health care support for refugees.
- Larson and her team will then travel to Poland to interview nurses working with Ukrainian refugees to get ground truth about what is actually happening with health in the diaspora.
- The third step will include convening a panel of expert nurses to determine best practices and methods of dissemination for training and education to nursing students.
Larson said. The pre-planning is ongoing now and her stay in Poland will run from August to December of 2023. It will take at least one more year to compile the research and field work into training for nurses working with refugees.
Larson said the World Health Organization already understands much of the systemic health challenges among Ukrainians, but she is more interested in the acute health needs that have arisen in the wake of the war. She anticipates mental health care will be a huge challenge, along with cardiovascular disease, other unmanaged chronic maladies and cancers that either haven't been diagnosed or treated.
"Lucyna is very excited because she's not a public health professional. She's an intensive care nurse and this is a public health project,"
Larson said. "I think our complementary expertise is another thing that the Fulbright Commission thought was very valuable."
The work Larson is undertaking with the Fulbright award is another peak of public service on her public health journey. She relishes the opportunity to be the first member of the College of Nursing to be accepted into the Fulbright Program in the college's six decades of educating nursing professionals.
"The Polish Commission asked, 'What will you get out of this'? I told them 'It's not about me.' We have 105 faculty and over the last 60 years we haven't had a Fulbright Scholar. That would mean the most to me,"
"For every nursing position I've held, intercultural care has been at the core. In preparing the Fulbright application I learned a lot about Ukrainian refugees - but I have a lot to learn about the history, culture and the people of Ukraine,"
North Carolina scholars have a long history of being selected to conduct research and represent the United States as ambassadors of hope in regions of the world where hope, and medical care, are precious commodities.
"The mission of the Fulbright Program is to foster and promote mutual understanding between the United States and other countries, which is important for achieving the shared global vision for peaceful relations on a global scale,"
said S. Grace Prakalapakorn, Fulbright Association North Carolina Chapter co-president, a pediatric ophthalmologist and associate professor at Duke University, and former junior Fulbright researcher in Thailand.
Prakalapakorn said that the Fulbright experience is an opportunity for Larson and other Fulbright scholars to "not only serve in their 'scholar' role but more importantly act as an ambassador of their home country to promote understanding between countries and cultures. The Fulbright Program is a phenomenal opportunity for professional development and the expansion of international understanding, in all fields including medicine."
Larson said that her time in the Peace Corps, and her work with migrant populations in rural North Carolina, molded her into the nurse and researcher who is uniquely suited to undertake the task she has set out for herself.