Nursing major follows passion, ends up in NYC

Tessa Friason isn’t your typical college student. She didn’t return home for summer break to relax next to the pool, watch movies with friends or go back to the job she held in high school. The senior nursing major spent the start of her summer vacation in Atlanta, where she completed five days of preparation for an internship with the Centers for Disease Control Undergraduate Public Scholars, or CUPS.

The ten-week program is focused on providing students who hope to pursue careers in public health research, community outreach and engagement, clinical work opportunities in public health—a perfect fit for Friason.

“I have learned that too many young adults pursue careers for stability, not passion,” Friason said. “My residents, peers and teammates tell me that they have been told to pursue careers that breed monetary and employment stability, thus sacrificing passion. Those careers are not rooted in humanitarian or religious beliefs, further removing those young adults from meaningful lives.”

Students involved in the CUPS program were given the chance to explore what their passion means to them, a path Friason began to travel at MMU.

“At Mount Mercy, my advisor (Dr. Michelle Umbarger-Mackey) and mentors have encouraged me to define my career goals in the abstract, and then build my career trajectory around those terms. Last fall we discussed my career interests outside of traditional healthcare, and I decided to pursue an internship focused on public health.

“I had visited a free clinic the spring prior with NOVA (Nurses of Vision and Action) where I encountered two nurses who had BSNs but pursued public health to provide multidisciplinary care to underserved populations in Milwaukee. With that encounter and Michelle’s guidance I began to pursue a summer of public health.”

Being proactive in finding an internship that fit her career goals landed Friason in a spot not many students find themselves—a paid internship which included travel, lodging and a stipend. The road wasn’t paved for Friason, though.

“Michelle helped me stay on course as I received three rejections in three days from other programs, programs I thought I was a shoe-in for. My family, especially my sister Kathryn, truly made the largest impact. They spent their free time over the Christmas holiday editing my personal statements. Without my family and my advisor, I doubt I would be in New York City, learning from professors and deans at Columbia’s medial, nursing, dental and public health schools.”

A part of the Columbia University cohort, Friason worked with 41 peers to research opportunities available as future public health leaders. She was able to focus on finding her unique interest in urban public health through a combination of internship and classroom learning. Students were expected to research a topic of public health that combines personal health interest and internship experiences to create a publishable literature review and complementary presentation.

Friason chose to research literature on urban public health and environmental justice. Specifically, literature related to the effects of gentrification on cardiovascular disease among Puerto Ricans. She found that little research had been done on the topic and proposed her findings at the end of her ten weeks with CUPS.

Friason worked with 41 members of the Columbia University cohort to research opportunities available as future public health leaders.
Friason worked with 41 members of the Columbia University cohort to research opportunities available as future public health leaders.

Having the opportunity to explore a career in this way is uncommon, but highly sought after. Only 100 students were chosen out of thousands who, like Friason, were chosen to participate after filling out an online application—one that included official transcripts, a personal statement, resume, letter of recommendation and a demographic/public health interest survey. Those 100 students were winnowed down to 42 after an eight minute phone interview. The group was carefully selected based on academic and personal commitment to reducing health disparities and social injustice.

Friason was placed in a mentorship with UPROSE, an environmental justice non-profit dedicated to fighting environmental racism in an industrial neighborhood of Brooklyn. Environmental racism is explained as a placement of low-income or minority communities in proximity of environmentally hazardous or degraded environments, such as toxic waste, pollution and urban decay.

Though Brooklyn is very different from Iowa, Friason said she was ready to hit the ground running.

“I felt prepared for the health-related portion of the summer, which I learned during my time at Mount Mercy. All of us in the cohort have unique phrases we employ when introducing ourselves to guest lecturers, mine being ‘I’m a rising senior in nursing school.’ This immediately provides me with an expert voice in clinical work, something most of my cohort does not yet have.”

Friason’s dedication to social justice was only strengthened over the summer, and she came back to Mount Mercy with an even stronger will to help those who need it most.

cdc-brooklyn-bridge“This internship has shaped my outlook on many things. As a nursing student, I felt that the best way to help underserved populations was to move to a remote region of the world and work as a nurse. However, I have seen populations in the United States that would greatly benefit from having people come back to their community.”

Friason likens public health to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”

“We public health professionals have received an amazing education and it is our duty to return to the darkest corners of our nation to provide our loved ones with the knowledge we have gained and an image of what they could become. Each movement has an organization created by members and allies. Allies, like me, need to recognize their individual privilege, step back from the conversation and protect the safe space for members of the group.”

Beyond skills learned during the internship, Friason learned valuable lessons about the internship process and suggests every student participate in at least one.

“I would suggest looking for internships that are loosely related to the student’s major, as those internships will provide him or her with more areas to grow and gain important skills. Since I was unsure of my post-graduation path, I am glad I took this chance. I feel that I have the skills that can get me into a job not many recent graduates have the opportunity for.”

After MMU, Friason plans to use her nursing education to work with a service organization. She has learned that her personality and drive are meant to help prevent families from checking into a hospital, not caring for patients in one.

“I am not sure where I will settle down after graduation, but I will do my best to provide safe, supportive and educational spaces for low-income and marginalized families, empowering them to become involved in their communities.”

Written by Amanda Mayotte ’15