Meet Roxana Chicas: Immigrant, nurse, scientist

Roxana Chicas is studying for a doctorate degree in nursing at Emory University's Nell Hodgson Woodruff School. Her research for the program focuses on reducing the serious kidney and brain damage that farm and construction workers can experience from being subject to extreme heat. Her nurse-scientist work will bring cooling methods right to the fields.

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For Chicas, this is so much more than a clinical study. She herself is part of the immigrant community that works in oppressive heat in marginal conditions. Both her parents were farmworkers in El Salvador before Chicas' mother fled the violent civil war there in 1986. Chicas was 4, and one of her earliest memories is completing the journey across the Rio Grande on her mother's shoulders.

That experience has informed every second of Chicas' journey since, both inside the classroom and in the great wide world. And while no one is more amazed than she is that she's now studying for the highest level of nursing education, she has been a medical advocate almost from the start. "Growing up in an immigrant community, I often was tasked with not only interpreting for my community at the medical office but also advocating for much-needed medications or healthcare access," she remembers.

The academic passion was latent and slow-growing. In fact, it's safe to say it almost didn't happen.

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Though she says she "always loved school," in high school, she didn't have immigration status, so she left before her senior year, earning a GED later. And then she went to work, first as a restaurant server and then in a pediatrician's office. By her parents' standards, she had made good. "The primary reason people like my parents are immigrating, they come wanting a job," she explains. "So their goal for me was to get a job – a good job where your employer will love you and keep you and you'll always have a job. Further education was not something at the forefront. The goal was basically surviving and having a roof over your head and having something to eat every day. So I was a huge success."

She was in her late 20s and working for Dr. Gerald Reisman at his pediatrics office when her paradigm began to shift.

She'd worked at the pediatric office several years by then, and finally decided she would take the next step and go to school to be a medical assistant. "In between patients one day, Dr. Reisman was coming out of an examining room and stopped me as I was walking by. 'I hear you are going to school to be a medical assistant,' he said. I said 'yes,' and I was really proud of myself."

And then the doctor spoke those critical words: "Why would you go to school to be a medical assistant when you could go to be a nurse?"

Chicas told him, "Nurses are really smart." He answered, "They are smart because they go to school and they study and they learn."

And then she asked him directly, "Do you think I could be a nurse?"

Without any hesitation, he immediately said, "Yes, go to Georgia Perimeter College, they have a nursing program there."

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She's the first to tell you she knew nothing about how to proceed. She had no idea how to apply for scholarships and didn't even realize there was such a thing as a master's degree, much less a doctorate for nursing. "When the doctor told me to go to Georgia Perimeter College, I took it literally," she says. "I only applied there. I didn't know you could apply to multiple schools. I also did not know how to apply for scholarships so I just paid out of pocket."

She started with the idea of taking classes on campus, then learned she would be paying out of state tuition. This slowed her progress to one class per semester. "Then one day I was driving along 285 and saw this huge billboard that said, 'Georgia Perimeter College online, $99 a credit hour!' And I learned if you take courses online, out of state tuition does not apply."

She took all her prerequisites online, reserving her campus budget for labs "where you dissect cats and stuff." She completed her full-time nursing work with a payment plan, still working full time and graduating with honors in 2015.

After some Emory professors showed up at GPC to talk about a Bridges to the Baccalaureate program aimed at encouraging more nurse-scientists with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, Chicas had another conversation with her mentor.

"Do you think that I could do this?" Chicas remembers asking him, "Be honest with me."

He looked at the flier and responded, "If not you, then who?"

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Chicas took that pithy phrase to heart, and it still guides her. "There is always something to be fighting for, social justice issues, health equity, improved working conditions," she says. "I always turn back to that Jewish quote, 'If not you, then who?'"

Her parents went with the flow, even as Chicas was working, studying, and caring for her two children. "They thought it was great because I told them that the doctor, who they trusted, had told me I could be a nurse. They have always been very supportive of me going to school."

Chicas describes her mom, the woman who literally carried her into America, as her biggest fan. "It's interesting because my mom only has a 6th-grade education, so it's hard for her to understand when I get stressed about school. What she'll say to me is, 'Well, honey, I don't know what to tell you, but I can watch the kids for you so you can study.'"

As part of her studies, Chicas has participated in the school's Farmworker Family Health Program where volunteers provide care to Moultrie, Georgia migrant workers and their families.

Chicas intends to make her mark academically but says she's even more committed to helping the "very vulnerable occupational group of immigrant agricultural workers improve their working conditions. I'm really into giving back to my community and helping to lift them up. The immigrant community has helped me be where I am. I am standing on their shoulders."

For 14 years, Chicas lived as an undocumented immigrant, then had temporary protected status for another 18. This past September, she received a green card through marriage. "It was a relief to know I can make my life here and this uncertainty is not lingering over me," she says. "The opportunities for me are limitless."

There's one way that green card has not changed her status, though. She feels like she is now, and has always been, American. "The United States is my country because I have lived here since I was 4. I have worked here, I was educated here," she says. "I am happy and honored to have this green card so I can really give back to my country. I think that my story is the American Dream."

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