Childhood Struggles Fuel Nurse Leader’s Drive to Help Society’s Most Vulnerable

    • July 15, 2015

When Aara Amidi-Nouri was a teenager, a car caught fire on the street outside her apartment building in a blighted San Francisco neighborhood. Her mother called the police, but no one came to investigate and the fire blazed into the night.

Amidi-Nouri, PhD, RN, a leading nurse educator, tells this story to illustrate the tarnished underside of the proverbial American dream—a side with which she is intimately familiar as the immigrant daughter of a single mother from Iran who struggled to support her family in the United States.

Born in London, Amidi-Nouri moved to Iran in the mid-1970s because her father wanted his young daughters to grow up in their homeland. But her parents divorced soon after, and her mother fled the country when religious conservatives seized power in the early 1980s and began to restrict women’s rights. “She was very leery of what was happening in our country and what that would mean for us,” Amidi-Nouri says.

The family first settled in Vienna, but Amidi-Nouri’s mother, an architect, struggled to find steady, promising work, so the family moved to San Francisco, where they could rely on support from nearby relatives. “She believed that the United States was the land of opportunity,” Amidi-Nouri says and, in some ways, it was: Soon after they arrived, Amidi-Nouri and her younger sister received scholarships that enabled them to attend one of the most prestigious private high schools in the city.

But life wasn’t exactly easy in America, at least at first. Amidi-Nouri’s mother once again found herself at the bottom of the social pyramid—but this time in a country with fewer social supports, high crime rates, and what Amidi-Nouri saw as a culture of institutionalized racism.

Unable to find work as an architect, her mother took a series of low-paying jobs and worked to rebuild her career. The family moved in and out of one-bedroom apartments in various low-income neighborhoods and bagged food at churches in exchange for free meals. They also ran into prejudice and xenophobia, and encountered people who thought Middle Easterners, and Iranians in particular, were “backward” and “ignorant.” “It was definitely a lot of struggle,” she says.

Passion for Helping the Underserved

Those trying experiences led Amidi-Nouri to feel enormous empathy and compassion for underserved people and communities. That, in turn, led her to nursing, the profession she felt gave her the best chance to help others facing hardship.

With the help of a generous scholarship, Amidi-Nouri attended Occidental College in Los Angeles and majored in psychology. After graduating, she took a job working with pregnant and parenting teens at a residential facility and, after a few years there, enrolled in a bachelor degrees in nursing (BSN) program.

The nurse practitioners at the facility were amazing,” she says. “They really made a difference and had an impact on the community.

Amidi-Nouri then went on to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees in the field. During her studies, she developed an interest in another vulnerable population: children with terminal illnesses. She wrote her master’s thesis on palliative care and her doctoral dissertation on how health care providers influence decisions affecting children at the end of their lives.

In the meantime, she worked as a clinician at a hematology and oncology unit at a hospital in Oakland and as a nurse educator at Samuel Merritt University School of Nursing, where she is now associate professor, chair of the BSN program, and director of diversity.

Since 2009, she has served as the project director of the school’s  Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Careers in Nursing (NCIN) program, a position that enables her to focus on another of her passions: diversifying the nursing workforce. The NCIN program helps achieve that goal through scholarships for college graduates from communities underrepresented in nursing who are enrolled in accelerated baccalaureate and master’s nursing programs.

Improving cultural sensitivity in health care and reducing health disparities are also on her agenda. In 2014, Amidi-Nouri was selected as an RWJF Executive Nurse Fellow, a three-year advanced leadership program for nurses who aspire to lead and shape health care locally and nationally. “One of the most exciting things about being a fellow is the ability to come together with so many wonderful people,” she says. “It is an incredible gift.”