May 03, 2016
By Laura Eggertson

The globalization of Paisly Symenuk

Bringing nursing students and novice nurses to the global health table

Teckles Photography Inc.

It was a visit to Senya Beraku, Ghana, in 2012 that ignited Paisly Symenuk’s passion to become a nurse leader in the global efforts to achieve health equity.

The Edmontonian is a third-year student in the University of Alberta’s faculty of nursing. She chairs the global health and outreach committee of the Canadian Nursing Students’ Association (CNSA) and, with Jessinta Philbert (an emergency department nurse who graduated in 2015), has established the first global association for nursing students and novice nurses. After graduation, Symenuk plans to begin graduate studies in global health.

Her motivation for leading change on such a scale is clear.

“The world is missing out on ideas and innovation on global health from nursing students and novice nurses because we’re not being invited to the table,” she says. “And we need more nurses in global health leadership.”

But before Symenuk visited Ghana during a trip to Africa, she was uncertain about what career to pursue. She wanted a job that would help her serve others, a value her parents instilled by having her volunteer with them early on.

At the Destiny Hope Africa school in Senya Beraku, she met children who were thrilled about being able to attend school, even though they had to sit on the floor, share lunches and notebooks, and write with pencils the size of toothpicks.

Symenuk realized that simply being born in Canada entitled her to good health care and an education. She revisited an idea she’d had about becoming a nurse and joining a profession that would allow her to give back to others and provide opportunities to work on global health issues.

She transferred from a general science program into the BScN honours program, with a specific focus on global health. Next year, she becomes the first person in her immediate family to graduate with a university degree. As a result of the extra credit courses she has been taking, she will also hold a certificate in community engagement and service learning and another in international learning.

Symenuk, who was involved in student politics in high school, had her first exposure to CNSA at its 2014 national conference.

“I was amazed by the professionalism and values that CNSA members demonstrated. I felt I had found people who shared my passion for leadership and advocacy and my interest in making a difference.”

At the International Council of Nurses (ICN) 2015 conference in Seoul, Korea, she co-presented a poster to promote global citizenship in nursing education. She was also one of five panellists at a student assembly. A plan was sparked there for a global network that would allow students and novice nurses to collaborate and have representation as a collective voice.

Symenuk and Philbert recently incorporated the Global Association of Student and Novice Nurses as a non-profit organization. In consultation with an advisory council of representatives from Korea, Japan, Argentina, Egypt, Nepal, Turkey, Australia and Thailand, the two are writing bylaws. They hope to issue a call for members soon. The first meeting will be held in 2017 in Barcelona, Spain, to coincide with the next ICN congress.

Forming the new association and her work with CNSA have increased her self-confidence and strengthened her conviction that nursing students have the capacity and drive to effect change. As well, she now believes nurses should be filling leadership roles in organizations that have far-reaching influence on health through their decision-making, such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. “Those roles should not be exclusively for people educated in law and business,” she says.

The key to juggling the work and her activities is “very good time management skills and an extremely organized Google Calendar,” she says with a laugh. She credits her family as well. “They have always been incredibly supportive of everything I am involved in.” She finds time to play basketball — and she watches as many games as she can (“I’m a fanatic”) — to walk her elderly poodle and to cycle and hike, weather permitting.

Her long-term goals are not clear yet, but she is definitely open to the idea of becoming a leader in a global organization and, if given the opportunity, promoting the value of experiential learning. That philosophy stems, in part, from a health promotion course she completed in Zambia. She will return there this summer to lead a research project, which will explore the perceptions and experiences of community health volunteers and their thinking on how to prevent gender-based violence. “These are people who have amazing ideas, but no one has really been asking them — even though they know their communities best.”

10 questions with Paisly Symenuk

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I would be able to play double bass in a bluegrass band

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I am slightly obsessed with parasites. In fact, my sister gave me a pair of Giardia lamblia earrings for Christmas

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Learn another language

Where did you go on your last vacation?
Back country hiking on the Chilkoot Trail, which runs from British Columbia to Alaska

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
Jellyfish Lake on Eil Malk Island in Palau

What is your biggest regret?
That I once believed I wasn’t smart enough to be successful at school and pursue my goals in global health

What do you like most about being a nursing student?
That our primary responsibility is to learn as much as we can and to be curious

What do you like least about being a nursing student?
How heavy our textbooks are

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
I’d ensure all forms of discrimination are eliminated

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist in Ottawa.

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