As Keisha Jefferies examines how the under-representation of African Nova Scotians in our health care system affects the overall health of the black community, New Glasgow is never far from her mind.
“Growing up in New Glasgow I only remember one black person in the Aberdeen Hospital and that was Dr. (Basilon) Cole who you didn’t see unless you were having surgery,” she said.
Jefferies is currently in her second year of a PhD program in nursing at Dalhousie University and her research is breaking new ground. She already has a science degree, a nursing degree and a Masters degree in nursing to her credit.
In spite of her academic laurels, Jefferies does not think she stood out academically during her schooling at Temperance Street, New Glasgow Junior High or North Nova Education Centre.
“I didn’t get any extra encouragement at home but there were people in my community I looked up to as I grew up. There was Crystal States of the Black Educators Association and her sister Sadie, and (teacher) Myla Borden. I could see they were accomplished.”
She has no memories of being singled out for encouragement at school, either.
“As far as schooling, I was on my own, without a lot of guidance. Everything I’ve done, including graduating from high school, was a first in my immediate family so I celebrate every accomplishment,” she said.
Looking back, she guesses her basketball coach, Cora Reddick, taught her as much as anyone.
“I played until I graduated NNEC and Cora taught me structure and focus. She is a strong woman and I think she drilled strength into me.”
Having enjoyed sciences in high school, she decided to go on to study at Mount Saint Vincent University. Towards the end of her four years she knew she did not want to work in a lab but was unsure what she would do.
“I’ve got a good friend, Ingrid MacLean, and we’d done everything together for years. She decided she was going on to nursing and that is when I started to look at nursing. I saw there were a lot of courses in anatomy and physiology and that interested me.”
She also found a scholarship she qualified for and was accepted into an accelerated nursing program.
“I couldn’t have done it without the scholarship and I enjoyed my first year but it wasn’t until the summer when I had a clinical placement that I became totally mentally invested. I saw what an RN did and I loved it.”
Jefferies added the further she went the more support she found from people back in New Glasgow and from various people and organizations in Halifax. A second clinical placement, in neo-natal intensive care, led her to two years of working on the unit.
“I’d never enjoyed the research aspect of nursing studies until I worked in the NICU. I noticed I was hearing people talk about the latest research findings. Then I attended a one-day nursing summit where professionals spoke about research and health care policy and I started to understand the importance.”
When she began collaborating with a staff nurse doing research in the NICU, her interest grew. Soon she was struggling with the idea of giving up her income but knew she had to go back to school. As part of her Masters’ program, she travelled to Tanzania with a research team and spent three months studying postpartum care and doing her own independent research.
“That experience confirmed for me I was going to become a nurse researcher and as I began talking with my supervisor about the needs of the black community, I gradually realized I would have to go on to get a PhD.”
Half way through her first semester, Jefferies took a week and a half off with her newborn daughter and then began toting her to classes.
“The nursing PhD is a very small, supportive program and everybody understood me wanting to breastfeed my daughter so they didn’t mind her coming along. This year she’s just started daycare.”
She has had to whittle down her thesis topic to the under-representation of African Nova Scotia nurses in health care settings and leadership roles but she sees boundless opportunities.
“I think reality is that if you don’t see yourself reflected in the people you go to visit in the health care system you may not think there is a place there for you. We have to encourage people in our community to enter nursing.”
Beyond that, there is a need for African Nova Scotian nurses to influence health care policy, she added.
“There is a paucity of research on nursing and health care in the black community. Obviously, we need to look at education and racism and discrimination because we know in the black community we have more people with generally poor health than in the Canadian population.”
Ultimately, Jefferies hopes her work will help the community that has supported her throughout her studies.
“I’ve had so much support from people wishing me well and through scholarships, I need to give back and that’s what I want.”
She has a piece of advice for today’s young students.
“Remember, you don’t need anyone’s permission to succeed. If you think people aren’t recognizing your abilities, don’t get too hung up on that or just show them. You are a valuable student if you think you are so maintain your own motivation.”