45 Minutes with Marife Aczon-Armstrong, PhD, MSN, MSCP, RN

Early last year, a Filipina nurse became a recipient of a Fulbright scholarship. A very rare opportunity for a nursing professional to obtain such an award given that most awardees are from the humanities, social sciences and engineering fields.

At any rate, Marife Aczon-Armstrong, Ph.D., an adjunct Nursing faculty member at Hawai‘i Pacific University went to Uganda, Africa at Uganda Christian University. The purpose of her grant project was to provide doctorally prepared nurse educators for the only functioning Masters in Nursing Science Programme in all of Uganda, in a country where there are only two National Nurses with a Ph.D. Having her on board has enabled this critical programme at Uganda Christian University continues.

Marife taught the course called Teaching and Learning for the brand new graduate class that begun in June 2014. This was a critical first course of the program. In this course, students not only learn about teaching and learning which they can apply directly in their current workplace after completion of the module, but this course also developed writing skills, and their use of the APA writing style.

Marife graduated from Hawaii Pacific University with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and Chaminade University of Honolulu with a Masters of Science in Counseling Psychology (MSCP). She completed her Masters of Science in Nursing (MSN) and received her Doctorate in nursing degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2010.

Marife was a member of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA) and the Asian American Pacific Islander Nurses Association (AAPINA). She is also a recipient of an employee scholarship award from the Queens Emma Nursing Institute. Marife’s active involvement earned her the 2009 Filipino Nurses Organization of Hawaii Excellence in Nursing Research Award during its 36th Annual Recognition Banquet at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu.

She shared some thoughts on being a nurse educator and a Fulbright scholar.

Before we forget, she was recently elected as PNA Hawaii chapter president. A significant role given that her chapter will host the forthcoming PNAA National Conference in July 2015. Definitely, we will have more of Marife’s in the future.

Some are concerned that becoming a nurse educator means that you can no longer continue practicing. Is this the case?

That is a valid concern, however, most of the nurse educators I know continued to work at bedside to keep their clinical skills updated.  It also depends on the nursing specialty one has chosen.  For example, my specialty is in medical/surgical nursing and case management besides nursing education.  As I grow older, it is challenging to perform certain nursing hands on task such as lifting patients.  Some nurse educators choose teaching due to physical limitations, those who had back injuries from transferring and repositioning patients.

Currently I’m working full-time as an RN Case Manager for The Queen’s Medical Center – Punchbowl, Patient Care and Patient Flow Division, Case Management Department.  I teach part-time as a Nursing Professor for Hawaii Pacific University’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences.  So in a sense, I’m still practicing as a nurse in the administrative side.  I still see patients in the hospital and manage their treatment and discharge planning.  A colleague of mine has an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse license. In order to keep her APRN license, she has to work in a clinic or hospital with direct patient care role while teaching at the University.

You can still continue to practice clinical bedside nursing while teaching.  That is the beauty of being a professional nurse, there is a wide range of opportunities to choose from.  

As an educator, what do you think the future looks like for nurses?

Nursing in the 21st century has never been so exciting!  As a nurse educator and an avid advocate for establishing our nursing profession as part of the healthcare team, the future of nursing is looking excellent!  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has finally acknowledged that nurses are the key to the future of health care system that is efficient, compassionate and effective.  Nurses nationwide were called in to be part of the strategic planning for our next generation. Nurses are now holding government positions as leaders in our country.  More exciting things are yet to be seen and yet to be realized.  As a nurse case manager, I am involved with treatment and discharge planning including determination of appropriateness for admission and level of care.  The nurses of the new millennium are now involved with finances, informatics, process improvement and research.  The bedside nurses of the future are all-around professional nurses who are excellent critical thinkers and lifelong learners, no longer just “handmaids”.  I know this because I’m their nursing professor who will make sure they are ready for this very important role.  

Tell us about your recent experience in Africa as a Fulbright scholar?

I’m glad you ask me and I will gladly share with you my experience as a Fulbright Scholar Senior Specialist in Uganda, Africa.  It all started when I joined our Bless Africa Mission Team at my church, Kailua Community Church (KCC) here in Hawaii.  There were 21 of us with 8 for the first Medical Team. Every year our church sends a group of KCC members to Uganda, Africa in Kampala and Jinja to provide vacation bible school and life skills for the youth group.  We support an orphanage, Siita Nest Mother’s Love Home in Jinja and Gospel of Light Church in Nateete, a slum area in Kampala, and the capital city of Uganda.  

We started a clinic in Nateete, Living Hope Medical Center where our Medical Team served last January 2013.  During this trip, we examined and treated families from the neighboring slum area for two full days.  On our last day, one of the older orphans that we support to attend college offered to take us on a tour at the university where he is attending Law School.  Moises took us to visit Uganda Christian University (UCU) and it was then that I discovered they have a nursing program.  We were walking down the parking area when I saw in the corner of my eye a purple bus with a big sign “Nursing Program”.  After returning from Africa in January 12, 2013, I immediately looked up the official website for Uganda Christian University.  I was impressed with their mission and vision, which were aligned with my belief and aspirations as a nurse educator.  I immediately emailed the UCU Vice-Chancellor and shared with him that I was in Uganda for a mission trip and visited their beautiful university campus and found out they have a nursing program and that I’m interested to teach there.  To my delight within two days I received an email from Dr. Karen Drake from Bethel University at Minneapolis, MN offering me a one-year Fulbright scholarship to teach at UCU or if I’m not ready for that 4-6 weeks module 2-3 times a year or be a missionary and stay there forever.  

Long story short, I had to apply on-line for the Fulbright Specialist Program, a program of the United States Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  I was not sure if I will be chosen because it was a competitive and rigorous application process.  A panel of experts appointed by our U.S. President is responsible for making the determination if an applicant has the knowledge, skills and education to be ambassadors to foreign countries.  It took me three months to complete the requirements and finally submitted my complete application a day before the deadline in September 1, 2013.  I waited and waited and by mid October when I didn’t hear from CIES (Council for International Exchange for Scholars) I decided it is not for me after all.  Little did I know that God had it on my calendar to go back to Africa.  On my birthday, November 26, 2013, I received an email with a letter that the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board (FFSB), the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Department of State (the department), and the Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES) selected me for the Fulbright Specialist grant in Public/Global Health at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, Uganda.  I will be on the Fulbright Specialist Roster List from 2014 to 2018.  

Fast forward, I arrived in Uganda, Africa midnight of June 1, 2014 after traveling for almost two full days from Honolulu, Hawaii connecting to Seattle then to Amsterdam to Kilgali, Rwanda and finally Entebbe airport in Uganda.  I stayed at a very modern Guest House for the whole month of June 2014.  The Eunice Guest House Dining facility provided my meals and if I need toiletries, the staff drives me once a week to town so I can purchase what I need.  My classroom is on the ground floor of the Mother Babies building in the heart of this beautiful campus.  I was introduced to my Master of Science in Nursing students on Monday afternoon.  I was still dreaming with about three hours sleep.  

Teaching and Learning Processes for Adults and Nursing Research were my assigned nursing courses for the only functioning Masters in Nursing program in all of Uganda.  Uganda only has two doctorates prepared nursing faculties.   Thus the partnership with Bethel University is vital to the existence of this program.  My first week was an adjustment process for both myself as the teacher and for my students.  I’m Filipino and my students are Ugandan who already obtained their BSN degrees and now pursuing their Master’s degree in Nursing.  They speak English well but they have British accent and different choice of words.  By the end of the week, we started to fully understand each other and the true learning began.  I used the reward system where I give free candies and writing pens if the students participate during class discussions.  They love candies, chocolates and varieties of pens. I learned a lot from them in regards to the school system and of course the culture.  They are very respectful and joyful people.  They are eager to learn and grateful for all things.  It was such a humbling and enriching experience.  What I love about my teaching experience at UCU is the freedom to utilize the gospel in every aspect of the curriculum because it is a Christian university.  All the writing assignments incorporate the Christian worldview.  The students are encouraged to develop a philosophy of teaching and learning in the context of a Christian Worldview and Ugandan higher education.

The exciting part of my teaching at UCU was the opportunity to visit the orphanage that my church supports.  I incorporated our Community Learning Experience (CLE) to visit the orphanage and boarding schools around Jinja and one in Mukono.  My students were happy to have this experience and learn that such program exists in their community.  This was a great way of opening their eyes to the needs of the people in their communities.  I hope to return again this year and continue sharing my faith, expertise and passion with the nursing students at UCU.