Armenia, a country slightly smaller than Maryland with a population of around 3 million, sits in Southwestern Asia between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Such a distant place may seem an unlikely spot to find faculty and students from the School of Nursing, but Sarah Hope Kagan, the Lucy Walker Honorary Term Professor of Gerontological Nursing, and freshman Abigail Burns are collaborating with a team to assess the nation’s professional nursing.
Two years into the Nursing in Armenia Assessment Project, the Penn Nursing team has learned that the view of nurses in Armenia is generally poor, and nursing professionals likely aren’t aware of the striking difference between their opportunities and those afforded to nurses elsewhere in the world.
“Nursing in the former Soviet republic is unlike what we [in the United States] would identify as nursing,” says Kagan, who spent seven years teaching qualitative research methods to graduate public health students in Armenia. “These nurses do incredible things against many odds to provide healthcare. They don’t have access to international standard education, they commonly don’t have access to supplies, and they’re often working alone or with people who think of them as little better than handmaidens.”
When Edele Hovnanian, a Penn alumna and a trustee of her family’s foundation—the Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation—committed a significant gift to support work improving healthcare in Armenia, Kagan took up the challenge. Burns was brought to the project by chance.
“I was assigned to be her academic adviser. This fall semester, Abby walked into my office,” Kagan explains. “When I learned about her interests and that she grew up in Kazakhstan, I felt she should be part of the project.”
Burns lived in Kazakhstan until age 14 and speaks Russian fluently, which has helped Armenians open up to her about nursing. She traveled to Armenia during spring break and plans to return this summer.
“I felt strongly about the plight of [those nursing] students,” Burns says. “In Kazakhstan, when I told my friends I was going to become a nurse, they all said, ‘You’re smart. Why would you choose to do that?’ It’s viewed similarly there. It’s not a profession that’s respected.”
Phase one of the Nursing in Armenia Assessment Project included surveying and interviewing hundreds of nurses. For part two, Kagan, Burns, and their colleagues at the American University of Armenia School of Public Health are formulating plans of action.
Strategic steps include student workshops to explain the nursing profession in other parts of the world; education to upgrade current nursing practices; curricular upgrades for Armenian nursing colleges; and assistance in creating a new definition of nursing in Armenia. Kagan says they’d also like to pioneer education opportunities to move nurses toward a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s of public health—non-existent in that country right now.
Though there’s a long road ahead to implementing these priorities, Kagan and Burns are proud of what the team has done so far.
“With luck,” Kagan says, “we’re going to help … hundreds of people provide better nursing and healthcare in a very underserved country.”