The first nurse in Mexico to earn a PhD tells her story.
How did she become a nurse, professor, and noted researcher? She visualized the future, decided what she wanted to achieve, and did her best on every project she accepted.
I appreciate the invitation from Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma) to share my story about why I’m a nurse and, more specifically, a nurse researcher. As I thought about how to tell that story, circumstances and experiences I hadn’t considered significant before came to mind.
I’m almost at the end of my professional career. Next May, I’ll celebrate 50 years as a full-time professor in the School of Nursing at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León (Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León) in Monterrey, Mexico. I was invited to become a professor in 1969, the same year the school’s baccalaureate nursing program began.
I chose nursing as a career because two of my friends decided to become nurses. When I graduated from high school in 1960, I knew very little about nursing, but, like my friends, I applied and was admitted to the Hospital Latino-Americano School of Nursing. Located in Puebla, Mexico, near Mexico City, it was far from Ciudad Mante, the city of my birth in the state of Tamaulipas. The dean of the school was from North America, and the students, who worked daily in the hospital, had nursing theory classes in the same facility. After receiving a nursing diploma in 1964, I took courses in med-surg nursing and nursing administration in Mexico City, receiving diplomas in 1966 and 1969, respectively.
Bachelor’s and master’s degrees
I had to leave my country to earn a baccalaureate degree because higher education opportunities were not then available in Mexico. So, funded by a scholarship from the Pan American Health Organization, an affiliate of the United Nations’ World Health Organization, I graduated from the National University of Colombia in Bogotá in 1973 with my bachelor’s degree. In 1985, I earned a master’s degree in administration with an emphasis on human resource management from Universidad Antónoma de Nuevo León, the same university where I served for many years as professor and dean of the School of Nursing.
In all these years—actually, since I began my nursing career in Puebla—I felt that the classes I took and the explanations I heard from my professors were not sufficient to understand the situations we would encounter in practice. When I was in high school, we had books for every subject, but in nursing we did not. Because I wanted to learn more, I looked for opportunities to advance my education. Unfortunately, opportunities for advancement in nursing were very scarce.
For about three decades—from 1970 to 2000—the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) played an important pro-nursing role in Latin America. Its leaders sought to extend coverage of primary health services in Mexico by funding programs that promoted preventive healthcare and improved the professional role of nurses. During this time, the School of Nursing in Monterrey obtained a grant to manage priority health promotion and prevention programs at the community clinic level. I was in charge of this health program for six years.
I had wonderful experiences learning directly from underserved population groups about problems they faced in daily living. Every day, I had questions with no answers about the complex problems families had to deal with. Because food and shelter were at the forefront of every decision, health was not a priority. Based on information I gleaned—and recognizing the need for nurses to be more assertive in intervening on behalf of individuals, families, and community groups—I became an advocate for more advanced nursing preparation. I proposed Mexico’s first master’s degree in nursing program, focusing on health promotion. Our experience in the clinics demonstrated very effectively the capacity of nurses to manage community healthcare promotion and preventive programs, and I had the opportunity to lead curriculum development.
While this program was in place, WKKF invited me to participate in a nursing development project with a group of other nursing leaders from Latin America. Although we learned from each other about healthcare problems and useful interventions, we all needed better preparation to be more effective in the task. Two years later, when I had an opportunity to become better prepared, especially in research, I took it. Supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, I began my doctoral program at Wayne State University School of Nursing in Detroit, Michigan, USA.
It was not easy to be a doctoral student. I had received much of my nursing education in the “old days” diploma-program model and had to study in English, which, for me, was a foreign language. Because my husband was active professionally in Monterrey, I was unable to pursue a full-time doctoral program. Hence, I opted for a summer program, and it took me seven years to obtain my degree. That first summer, I asked myself: “What am I doing here?” This is not for me!” Fortunately, that was just my first reaction. Eventually, I adapted to being out of town and out of my country for three months every summer, and I graduated in 1997.
Coming back to Universidad Antónoma de Nuevo León in Monterrey with a PhD degree gave me great satisfaction, but two major issues immediately confronted me. First, I was asked to work on a proposal to prepare nurses at the doctoral level at my university. Second, there was a great need to advance my own research because fundamental to developing a graduate program is having a faculty with good research programs already in place.
At this point, a relationship with a colleague in my doctoral program in Michigan proved very helpful. This professor, a friend of mine, invited our school—under my leadership—to develop a research project in Monterrey. The National Institute of Nursing Research, one of 27 institutes of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, provided funding. That helped us tremendously in getting a doctoral program approved by the central graduate department of our university.
Several other remarkable events were part of my professional trajectory during those years. I received a medal from the Mexican federal government for my work in community health programs and for being the first nurse in Mexico to obtain a PhD. I was also inducted into the American Academy of Nursing. But I couldn’t rest on my laurels. I had to continue focusing on my principal objective, which was to improve our school’s research production—my own research as well as others.
To achieve this goal, for several years, I coordinated a group of nursing faculty members involved in research. In Mexico, there is a central organization called CONACYT, which stands for Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (National Council of Research and Technology). Embedded within the organization are scholars from various disciplines who apply for recognition as CONACYT researchers. Before 2010, no nurses in our university—and perhaps none in the country—were part of this system. That has now changed. Because of our efforts, 15 faculty members of our School of Nursing are presently members of CONACYT. I was recognized as a CONACYT researcher in 2010. That was also the year I was nominated for and inducted into Sigma’s International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame.
My research interest is chronicity—specifically, type 2 diabetes and obesity, both of which negatively affect the health of a significant percentage of adults in Mexico. Nearly 80 percent of those diagnosed with diabetes mellitus type 2 do not adhere to their treatment regimen, resulting in uncontrolled glucose levels and complications. The challenge is to better understand the factors that influence noncompliance and, if mitigated, would improve intervention. I am joined in this field by a group of multidisciplinary researchers who are seeking to find new methods for preventing this disease.
The cost of dreams
As a nurse, professor, and nurse researcher, I’ve learned to visualize the future and make decisions based on what I would like to achieve. In doing so, there is always a price to pay. For example, in deciding to pursue graduate studies, I had to leave home and family. On the other hand, I’ve also been blessed with sources of support—all of my studies have been funded by scholarships.
When I had to spend summers out of town, my university supported me economically and gave me time off from my regular duties. Also important was that my husband agreed to be alone for three months every year. If I were to identify why I received that support, I would say it’s because I always tried very hard to be responsible. Any project I agreed to work on, I did my best to accomplish its objectives. So, this is my advice to the new generation of nurses: Be responsible and pursue those enterprises that bring you satisfaction because that improves nursing care, nursing education, nursing research, and yourself, as a nurse and as a person.
Esther Carlota Gallegos Cabriales, PhD, MA, RN, FAAN, former dean of the School of Nursing at Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, is now professor emeritus.
Editor’s note: The International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame award, first presented in 2010 by Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma), honors nurse researchers who have achieved significant and sustained national and/or international recognition for their work and whose research has influenced the profession and the people it serves. The induction ceremony during the 30th International Nursing Research Congress, 25-29 July 2019, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, will mark the 10th presentation of the award.
The nominating deadline is 11 December 2018, and all active Sigma members worldwide are eligible. Current members of the Sigma board of directors, Sigma staff, Sigma consultants and contracted staff, and members of the judging committee are not eligible. Click here for more information.