Even thousands of miles away from home, international Gator Nurses are making a global impact. The University of Florida College of Nursing’s diverse network of students, alumni and faculty from all over the world has transformed nursing education and practice. Their cultural perspectives, as well as their nursing excellence, help us better understand the professional and personal experiences of others in the world we share.
First-generation Gator Nurse
Current Accelerated BSN student Ashley Zeledon Bodden still remembers the very moment her life changed forever.
Due to political instability in her home country of Honduras, she and her family relocated to Miami in 2012, when she was just 14 years old. Zeledon said she immediately came face-to-face with the realities of navigating a new culture, from linguistic and social differences down to the gastronomy and community traditions common in the U.S.
After graduating from high school, Zeledon became excited by the many options for colleges and universities all over the country. She initially pursued a degree in sociology from UF to gain a strong academic and culturally aware background. This then fueled her passion of caring for others and led her to study nursing with a commitment to giving back to the health of people who share similar experiences, a journey she has already started.
“I think being Afro-Latina has shaped the way I care for my patients, especially those coming from Black or Hispanic communities,” she said. “This connection allows me to bond with them and build a stronger rapport by creating an environment of trust while providing quality, safe care.”
Since arriving at the College of Nursing, Zeledon has been an agent of change. She has served as a member of the student organization Nurses Leading Change and as a leader through her involvement with the Keys to Success Program, a mentorship opportunity for underrepresented students interested in the health professions. Most recently, she has become an advocate for accessibility in health care, working in the EMBRACE leadership program alongside her own mentor, Jeanne-Marie Stacciarini, PhD, RN, FAAN, to develop an educational module to increase awareness about different abilities among hospital nurses.
After graduation, Zeledon hopes to work as a bedside nurse before returning to pursue her DNP degree. But for now, the most memorable part of her nursing experience has been the connection she has formed with her supportive peers and faculty.
She credits Stacciarini, as well as Assistant Professor Staja Booker, PhD, RN, for her ability to achieve what she never previously believed to be possible.
“I am so thankful for their encouragement,” she said. “The entire college has encouraged me to strive for higher goals and has supported my journey toward them. I hope to work to improve health outcomes for marginalized communities and people of color, one patient at a time.”
Honoring her heritage
Fourteen years and 8,000 miles later, PhD student Jianli Wu still remembers her initial challenges of adjusting to a new language and culture after moving with her family to the U.S.
Wu’s move from China saw her travel across the U.S. — from West Virginia to North Carolina to Georgia — before finally arriving in Gainesville in 2021 to pursue her PhD with a focus in pain management. A previous bedside nurse, Wu said her interest in pain management came directly from her own culture, where respect and caring for older adults is greatly encouraged.
“A seed of deep compassion for older adults in need has been planted in my heart since I was a child, which was only reinforced during my time as a nurse,” she said.
Thanks to the College of Nursing’s support of her research goals, Wu hopes to explore various factors that might improve pain, as well as strategies to prevent cognitive decline through effective pain management. Under the mentorship of Ann Horgas, PhD, RN, FGSA, FAAN, and Staja Booker, she has since become a rising symptom management star scholar, with plans to expand her research through international collaborations in China after earning her degree.
Now a third-year doctoral student, Wu hopes to honor her cultural background by eventually becoming a professor with a focus in pain management. She hopes her work will help clinicians discover new ways to understand the relationship between pain and cognitive decline.
“Our scientific endeavors could contribute to the advancement of knowledge, and hopefully, improve the quality of human life,” Wu said.
A daring escape
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and a famine in Cuba, the Cuban government announced during the “Special Period in Peacetime” in 1994 that citizens were free to leave the island if they could make their own arrangements. Jorge Mulet was just a toddler when his father sold their family home and bought a large boat that could fit about 20 people. That fall, he, his family and friends boarded the boat to escape Cuba.
The boat moved slowly because the motor was made from tractor engines, and the group was on the water for two days before the U.S. Coast Guard discovered them. They were escorted back to Cuba and stayed at Guantanamo, which was a U.S. military base at that time. After three months in Guantanamo, they were allowed to enter the U.S., when Mulet was 4 years old.
Mulet grew up in Miami and earned his BSN degree from the University of Miami in 2016. A year after graduating, he moved to Gainesville to work at UF Health, where he has been a registered nurse in the Admission Discharge Transition Unit for five years. He was admitted to the UF DNP program in 2020 to become a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner.
“I chose UF Nursing because I’ve had such a great experience at UF Health, and I can relate to the values that are part of the UF culture,” Mulet said. “The same core values of excellence, leadership and innovation that are present at UF Health is mirrored by UF Nursing.”
In regard to the culture in Cuba and the U.S., Mulet thinks the differences are not substantial.
“The different culture probably was not such a huge shock to me because I came when I was very young,” he said. “Ultimately, we’re all just aspiring to do the best we can in order to be successful and give the best opportunities that we can for our children. And we do this by working hard.”
He said diversity and international representation is important because it offers a different perspective or lens by which nurses can solve problems, while also influencing a new generation of nurses.
“It’s important to understand where people are coming from and it allows us to be more compassionate toward others whose culture we do not share. Also, having diversity and international people represented in nursing opens the possibility for other individuals from these cultures to realize that they also can become nurses, regardless of their cultural background or gender.”
Cultural connections, college collaborations
After Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion and Engagement Jeanne-Marie Stacciarini, PhD, RN, FAAN, first arrived in the U.S. in 1998 from Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar, her fond memories of the overseas opportunity motivated her to later plan to return for good.
Twenty years later, Stacciarini has become a pioneer for international collaboration at the College of Nursing, creating efforts to connect with different cultures that will endure for years to come.
Stacciarini joined the College of Nursing in 2006, in large part because of Florida’s large population of immigrants and rural workers, the main foci of her research. Originally interested in occupational health, she used her community and mental health background, knowledge of Spanish and familiarity with the culture to tailor her research to focus specifically on Hispanic and Latino farmworkers.
“I had to restart my career in another country, relearning the research process and nursing profession,” she said. “But since I came to the college, I have never felt like a ‘foreigner.’ Thanks to my colleagues, I had no problem adjusting and feeling like I was welcome.”
The moment she felt like she truly belonged? When she received a note from one of her faculty colleagues mentioning how the U.S. is a better country because Stacciarini became one of its citizens.
Now, Stacciarini is committed to fostering an environment that supports all individuals. Her work has led to the creation of inclusive initiatives for students, such as the EMBRACE mentorship program, a hands-on experience where nursing students from diverse backgrounds participate in unique research and leadership opportunities.
Stacciarini’s connections with other cultures have continued from the first moment she arrived at the college. More than 10 years ago, she created a partnership with multiple Brazilian universities seeking to increase knowledge of the DNP degree and the role of nurse practitioners in the country. Recently, nursing faculty from various Brazilian states visited the college to learn strategies to promote advanced practice nursing education in their home country, and they will return later this spring.
“I am honored and am privileged to consider myself multicultural,” Stacciarini said. “It is truly the opportunity of a lifetime to connect with so many different cultures each day.”
A Warm welcome
For Assistant Professor Ragnhildur (Raga) Bjarnadottir, PhD, MPH, Florida’s warm and sunny climate was a major adjustment from her native Iceland. But after moving to the Sunshine State, Bjarnadottir has since loved every moment.
Bjarnadottir made the move to the U.S., and UF in particular, because of its world-renowned nursing informatics expertise. Icelandic emphasis on technology and digital skills originally sparked her interest in nursing informatics, as well as her desire to make a difference in nursing policy and practice.
According to Bjarnadottir, being an international faculty member has provided her with a unique perspective about health care innovations in both countries.
“There are a lot of differences in how health care is organized, and it is really interesting to explore both systems as an outsider,” she said. “The key takeaway I have from my observations is that neither system has it completely figured out, and that we really need to continue innovating together to improve our systems.”
Now part of a seven-person cohort of preeminent artificial intelligence faculty at the College of Nursing, she integrates her own data science expertise with that of her colleagues to develop new ways to document patient data to improve health care quality.
The welcoming culture of Florida and the college has also provided her a ‘home’ away from home.
“I remember when I first moved to Florida, I noticed a huge difference from Iceland — the biggest thing was how everyone chats to you here, even perfect strangers!” she said. “This helps make the College of Nursing feel a little bit like a family, and that can be really powerful and comforting when your ’real’ family is so far away,” she said.
Rocking new roots
At 12 years old, Assistant Professor Dany Fanfan, PhD, MSN, RN, moved to South Florida. Her favorite part about her new home? Rock music.
A Haitian national, Fanfan initially found it very difficult to integrate into American society. Rock music was very different than any type of music she had ever listened to in Haiti, but becoming a fan of the genre helped her to make new social connections and friends, as well as accept the new presence of two cultures in her life.
“Originally, it was hard for me to adopt American societal, food and cultural norms, since I lived in Miami, where I was surrounded by a huge Haitian community that kept me embedded in the norms and culture,” she said. “But, somehow, music helped me understand the different types of people within the spaces I navigated. I learned that I could discover new things to love about the fabric of the United States and fully embrace them.”
Once she and her family became established in the states, Fanfan knew she wanted to give back to her community in some form. Her decision to become a nurse scientist was specifically inspired by her experience as a Haitian immigrant, and the urgent need to better understand the elements that impact this population’s mental health.
“Haitian immigrants have often been exposed to trauma, loss and poverty, among other factors that make this population extremely vulnerable to mental health conditions,” she said. “By getting a glimpse behind the veil of the Haitian culture and how these factors affect distress symptoms and mental health, we can better help this population.”
With two decades in the U.S. now behind her, Fanfan has devoted her research to health inequities. Most recently, she is examining microbes found in the stomach, health determinants, as well as levels of psychological distress to explore how immigrant health can be affected by a move to the United States.
Within the College of Nursing, Fanfan is also thankful to not travel this journey of discovery alone. As an early-stage nurse researcher, the support of her research mentors and colleagues has been essential to advance closer to her goal of eliminating health disparities.
A journey of a lifetime
Associate Professor Saun-Joo Yoon, PhD, RN, has fond memories of the winding path her life has taken since leaving her home country of South Korea.
Originally moving with her husband to the United States to pursue higher education, Yoon has since laid down roots. After earning her master’s and PhD degrees in nursing science from the University of Florida, she decided to remain in Gainesville to start and raise a family.
Nearly three decades later, Yoon’s entire family, including her husband and two daughters have officially become members of the Gator Nation, each earning degrees from UF.
“It’s been a journey,” Yoon said. “This achievement is especially meaningful to my family.”
Although she has now lived in the U.S. for the majority of her life, Yoon still honors her Korean culture with her research. Her ‘cultural hybrid’ work on acupuncture, one of the most common traditional therapies in South Korea and a complementary therapy in the U.S., is being studied to discover new ways to improve symptoms without adding more medications for patients with cancer.
Collaborating with faculty and students from around the globe is also a passion of hers. Yoon has engaged in oncology research partnerships with faculty from South Korea and has served as a faculty mentor for countless international undergraduate, PhD and DNP nursing students.
Above all, she hopes to use her own experience as a Gator Nurse to encourage her students to immerse themselves in the many different cultures they will encounter during their time in the U.S.
“Learning more about the different cultures in the U.S. helped me truly understand the people I lived around. The more I learned, the more I felt I could impact patients and their health outcomes,” Yoon said. “You never know who might be in your care at one point or another.”
Traditions and Ambitions
In Vietnamese culture, the eldest child often works to help support the family. Minh-Nguyet Nguyen (BSN 2008, DNP 2012) upheld this traditional practice after arriving in the U.S. with her family when she was 20. Nguyen, her parents and three siblings were sponsored by her uncle, Ru Nguyen, a professor at UF. The family’s oldest daughter remained in Vietnam, so Nguyen stepped up to help the family in their new home.
Nguyen attended Santa Fe College while working two to three jobs, including as a student tutor. Originally planning to attend medical school, Nguyen decided to pursue nursing so she would have more time to support her family.
“I never regret my decision to become a nurse and provide compassionate care to patients,” she said.
In 2006, Nguyen was accepted to the BSN program at UF while continuing to work at a Vietnamese restaurant and as a patient care assistant at Shands and Alachua General Hospital. She was the only Vietnamese student and one of the only international students in the BSN program at that time. Language was a major stressor and barrier for her, but she recounts her time at the College of Nursing as a great experience receiving support from many of her faculty members.
Nguyen excelled in the program and following graduation was accepted to the first nurse residency program at the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Gainesville. After working full-time at the VA for a year, Nguyen pursued a DNP degree. Once again, she applied to the UF College of Nursing, working part-time, supporting her family and attending courses full-time.
As her siblings grew up, they each also pursued degrees at UF, following in their sister’s footsteps. Ten years ago, Nguyen accepted a position at UF Health as a nurse practitioner in the division of hematology and oncology, where she has been ever since.
She said it is important to have diverse representation in the nursing profession because nurses are providing care for a diverse population — one that is becoming more and more varied every day. She likens the world to a garden.
“If a garden only has one kind of flower, it would not be beautiful,” she said. “It is the different-colored flowers from everywhere that makes the garden flourish.”
The path together
Beryl and Moses Ekakitie (DNP 2021) met in the early 1990s and fell in love caring for the same patient. Moses was in medical school completing his internship at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, while Beryl was completing her studies as a registered nurse.
They married, had four children and ran a general practice clinic in Nigeria for 20 years. Moses was head physician and Beryl was the head nurse, taking care of a variety of patients across the lifespan.
But it was their desire to provide better educational opportunities for their four children that led them to the U.S., and they ended up pursuing advanced degrees themselves as well.
Together, they attended and completed the psychiatric mental health track in the DNP program at the College of Nursing, graduating in 2021.
The journey has not always been easy though, as the Ekakities encountered many obstacles, but the one thing they always maintained is their focus.
“The most important thing is to remain focused. There were a lot of things I wanted to do but couldn’t because of my accent and color of my skin. It was glaring. I couldn’t help these barriers in as much as I couldn’t change the color of my skin or my accent. I just remained focused and knew the barrier would be there for a while but not forever.”
Now, Beryl is a provider at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center in Gainesville and Moses is a provider at Balance Wellbeing in Lake City, Florida.
“We believe that America is the land of opportunity,” Moses said. “It is open to the individual who can apply themselves appropriately. One thing that doesn’t change irrespective of your work or career line when you are coming to the United States is that it’s always good to go back to school, no matter your age. Once you have a degree or license from here, the sky is the limit.”
A first for international representation
In 1973, the University of Florida was not nearly as diverse as it is today. And although Myrna Courage (MN 1973) grew up in Canada and received her nursing diploma in Winnipeg and BSN degree at McGill University in Montreal, she did not see a great difference in the nursing environment when she arrived in Gainesville compared to Canadian hospitals.
“I always worked in major research hospitals, so coming to UF — particularly Shands Hospital and the College of Nursing — the environment was similar,” Courage said.
Courage was attending graduate school in Maryland when she and her husband, Kenneth, decided to move to Gainesville. She said the College of Nursing’s founding dean, Dorothy Smith, was a major influence in her decision to transfer to UF to earn her MSN.
After graduating, Courage was offered a role as an instructor at the college, while Kenneth remained on faculty at the College of Engineering. During her 35-year career at the College of Nursing, Courage worked her way up to become the associate dean of academic and student affairs before retiring as a professor emeritus in 2003.
Growing up in Canada, Courage came from what was considered a socialist country. She also worked at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, during the 1967 riots. But although her experience before coming to Gainesville was varied and rich, she said living and working in the diverse university community, while also raising a family, made it so that she was not aware of many social and cultural differences.
Instead, she was focused on her role of graduating highly motivated and intelligent nurses. As an administrator, she ensured the college had expert clinical faculty so students were prepared to become expert clinicians themselves.
“Nursing students need to have a strong scientific background, as well as the backbone to be an active member on a care team that includes physicians, pharmacists and more,” she said.