Program provides international medical professionals new opportunities

Image of Lion with global health symbols
Credit: Sharon Siegfried

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Arzu Dede was a nurse in her homeland Turkey for 15 years. That ended when she was forced to flee and seek refuge in the U.S. She said her patients were a big part of her life until she left Turkey and she is eager to return to nursing.

Dede is one of many international medical professionals who have come to the U.S. and found an opportunity to continue to practice medicine in their new country through Penn State Harrisburg’s Second Degree Nursing Program.

“The program is very important to me,” said Dede, who has joined the fall 2022 program cohort. “Thanks to this program, I think that I will have the opportunity to practice my profession, and most importantly, I will continue my professional life as an even-more equipped nurse by learning new experiences and new information. It isn't just a nursing degree for me. I will regain my lost self-confidence and hope.”

Bringing international medical professionals into the program began in 2017 through a partnership between the Literacy Council of Lancaster-Lebanon, specifically one of their lead volunteers Dr. Daniel Weber, a retired physician and Penn State alum, who personally connected the international physicians with the Penn State Hershey Clinical Simulation Center. This provided them with a means to continue to practice and maintain their clinical skills, while expanding their knowledge of medical language in English.

In fall 2017, Ann Swartz, the nursing coordinator at Penn State Harrisburg, heard about the program and connected with Weber. She learned that many international medical professionals were unable to resume their medical careers in the U.S. and many were working as day laborers, manual overnight workers in warehouses and distribution centers, or as certified nursing assistants or medical assistants. Swartz said she already knew the challenges these physicians faced in trying to return to their chosen profession in the United States — the lengthy and costly process of trying to get into a medical residency program — and thought a nursing path may be an excellent choice for them. The international physicians welcomed this path. 

Ovis Garcia Bernal, one of the first international physicians to graduate from the Second-Degree Nursing Program at Penn State Harrisburg and practicing nurse at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital, shared these thoughts prior to completion of his degree in 2020: “When I came [to the U.S.], I started working in a factory to be able to pay my bills and do something with my life. This program was a huge change for me.”

Bernal had been a practicing physician in Cuba before coming to the U.S. and heard about the program through Cuban colleagues with the Literacy Council of Lancaster-Lebanon. “[This program was] a blessing for me, already a professional in the medical field, to re-enter the health system this time as a nurse in the U.S. The teaching team demonstrated cultural sensitivity, and unconditional support for ESL students. They provided peer tutoring; they looked for all possible methods to help me because of my language limitations. My family and I will be forever grateful. I am proud to have achieved my degree. The Penn State Second Degree Nursing Program gave me a new hope in my personal life to start from scratch in this new country; I can say that it represents the beginning of my American dream. Penn State was there to open that door for me.”    

The first group of medical professionals was admitted to the nursing program at Penn State Harrisburg in fall 2019 and graduated in December 2020. The first six students, all from Cuba, were in class alongside their American peers learning, practicing, and growing as nurses. They also benefitted from a peer mentoring program and other support.

“The struggles these physicians and their families faced from the time they left Cuba until they came to the United States and graduated from our program seems insurmountable to most of us, but, not to them,” said Ronda Stump, senior academic adviser for the College of Nursing and School of Behavioral Sciences and Education at Penn State Harrisburg. “Their drive, passion, perseverance, motivation, commitment and gratitude to serving the community that welcomed and embraced them is a shining model that reminds us of all the good in the world.”

The program has grown to include other Penn State locations and expanded to include other health care professions, including nurses from other countries. In recent cohorts, including this fall, international medical professionals have joined the program from Cuba, Senegal, Iraq, India and Turkey and other countries across the globe.

 Recruitment for the program continues to be a “family affair”

Farba Faye, who graduated this past December and was the program’s first student from Senegal, is currently working at UPMC Community Hospital in Harrisburg, but is striving to one day become a doctor in the U.S. He learned about the program from his wife who studied and works at Penn State. He said that although the language barrier was a challenge for him during his academic journey, the program has opened more opportunities for him in the medical field.

“I was hired as a nurse before finishing this program,” he said. “I have learned so much about the U.S. healthcare system, and I am in a much better position financially. Now, I can support my wife and son, and my family back in Africa. I could not be prouder. Understanding how to better care for my patients is making me a better healthcare professional and a better human being overall.”

Roberto Holder Orta and Adriana Grisel Prieto Grave De Peralta are spouses from Cuba who enrolled in the program. Adriana graduated from the program in 2021 and Roberto will graduate fall 2022. They have one son and arrived in the U.S. five years ago. They were trained as physicians in Cuba and worked there, as well as Venezuela and Brazil, before coming to Miami and then moving to Lancaster.

Orta worked while De Peralta completed the program. Once she graduated, he enrolled while she now works as an RN and completes her graduate studies.

"When I decided to immigrate to the U.S at the age of 40, and with a health profession [background] in my home country, many people told me that here I could work as anything but a health professional because it was difficult, almost impossible to start all over,” De Peralta said. "This program has developed my critical thinking skills and has improved my skills to speak and understand the English language better, and to use technology. Personally speaking, I know that I have set a good example for my son who has seen me study, strive, cry, and laugh with my achievements in this program. I am working and I can financially support my family, my son and my husband who is studying right now in that program.”

Program provides benefits for international physicians and their American counterparts

Stump said that though the relationship was started to help international physicians find new opportunities to practice medicine, everyone has learned that there are innumerable benefits to all the constituents involved.

By studying and working alongside American students whose primary language is English, the international physicians continue to improve their English language skills. Many of the former physicians also mentor the younger, American students.

Stump added that for Penn State Harrisburg and the College of Nursing, this allows for the expansion into a new diverse market which will positively impact local communities. “We are helping educate multilingual former physicians to enter health care facilities across southcentral Pennsylvania and beyond. Many of these former physicians-turned-nurses look like their patients and can communicate with them. The nursing shortage is a crisis across the United States and these highly educated nurses are exceptionally qualified to step in and help address this gap.”