Illustration of three nurses holding up a bridge.

Rewarding Commitment

Service scholarships support Columbia Nursing students who aim for careers in underserved communities.

May 13, 2021

Anyone who spends much time reading the headlines these days can’t be blamed for concluding that altruism has fallen out of favor. But a sure-fire way to restore one’s faith in humanity is to talk with Columbia Nursing students about their career ambitions. “About 80 percent of our enrollees say they’d like to work in underserved areas,” says Judy Wolfe, EdD, associate dean of student affairs. “They want to make a difference in places that really need it.”

Even when that desire runs up against financial realities, such students (with the school’s support) find ways to reach for their dreams. And two scholarships at Columbia Nursing aim directly at encouraging the impulse to serve.

The first is the National Health Service Corps Scholars program, administered by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA, pronounced “her-suh”). A HRSA scholarship pays up to four years of tuition and fees, as well as a living stipend, in return for a pledge to work at an approved site in a medically underserved community. (At least one year of service is required for each year of support, with a minimum commitment of two years.) Open to students pursuing postgraduate degrees in primary care nursing, as well as in medicine and dentistry, the scholarship attracts about 2,000 applicants each year—and accepts only about 10 percent of them. Candidates must demonstrate a commitment to caring for underserved populations; other selection factors include academic excellence, financial need, and a disadvantaged background.

In September 2020, the school introduced another service scholarship: the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows program, administered by the United States Peace Corps. The program provides financial assistance to returning Peace Corps volunteers who wish to pursue graduate or postgraduate degrees. All Coverdell Fellows must complete internships in underserved communities in the U.S., where they can expand on the skills they learned while volunteering abroad.

At Columbia Nursing, students accepted as Coverdell Fellows receive $30,000 toward their tuition and fees for the Masters Direct Entry (MDE) program; they may also be eligible for needs-based scholarships from the Office of Development. To fulfill the internship requirement, participants work with Project STAY (operated by the Harlem Health Promotion Center within Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health), which provides health-care services for young people aged 14 to 24 who are living with HIV, as well as LGBTQ+ and justice-involved youth.

The Coverdell Fellows program was initiated at the school by Assistant Professor Ana Kelly, PhD, a Peace Corps veteran who served for two years in Namibia. “When I joined the faculty in 2017, I was surprised to learn that we didn’t have a Coverdell program yet, because it seemed like such a perfect fit,” she recalls. When Kelly proposed the idea to Dean Lorraine Frazier, PhD, “she told me to go for it. She’s been incredibly supportive.”

This year, three Columbia Nursing students won HRSA scholarships, and four Coverdell Fellows began their MDE studies. Here, we introduce some of these extraordinary individuals—along with two alumni whose budding careers help illustrate the impact of a well-placed investment in education.

Katie Kleinberg, MS ’21

Coverdell Fellow

A native of Westport, Connecticut, Kleinberg majored in biobehavioral health at Penn State University. “I wanted to go into health care, but I didn’t know in what capacity,” she recalls. “All I was sure of was that I wanted to make a difference.” Hoping for clarity—and eager to see the world—she joined the Peace Corps after graduating in 2016. Sent to Mozambique, she was assigned to teach English at a village secondary school. But she wound up spending much of her time instructing teens on sexual and reproductive health, including how to make menstrual pads from towels and plastic bags. “The dropout rate for girls was really high, because so many of them were getting pregnant. And they’d miss days of school whenever they got their periods.”

Electrified by the experience, Kleinberg sought out something similar when her tour was over. Moving to New York City, she took a job as a health-care associate at Planned Parenthood, doing birth control and abortion counseling. She also assisted the clinic’s nurse practitioners and soon realized that she’d found her calling. “They were the ones who advocated for patients and acted as a trusted resource, which was exactly what I wanted to do,” she says.

Kleinberg started at Columbia Nursing in 2020; she’ll earn her MSN this summer and plans to continue her studies in the DNP program. She was drawn to the school because of its strong global network—she envisions working in Africa again someday—but it was the Coverdell Fellowship that clinched the deal. “The scholarship takes off a lot of the pressure,” she says. “I’ve worked part-time on and off throughout the program, but my grades would have suffered if I’d had to do more. I’m getting a great education, and I’m so happy not to have to worry constantly about how to pay for it.”

Hindrik Prenger and Katie Kleinberg on rock.

Hindrik Prenger, MS '21, DNP '24, and Katie Kleinberg, MS '21

Hindrik Prenger, MS ’21, DNP ’24

Coverdell Fellow

Born in Texas to a Dutch father and an American mother who worked for international nonprofits, Prenger grew up all over the planet—from Germany to the Philippines. In high school, a stint as a lifeguard awakened his interest in health care, and classes in anatomy and physiology confirmed it. But after entering Texas A&M as a premed, he realized that biology and chemistry weren’t his strong suits. “I knew the MD route wasn’t for me,” he says, “so I changed my major to international studies.”

As he continued his education, Prenger began searching for alternative ways to pursue both his medical and globe-trotting proclivities. That led him to consider the Peace Corps. When he learned that the agency favors candidates with EMT certification, he realized that as an adrenaline junkie with a fondness for rock-climbing and kayaking, that kind of training would suit him perfectly. After getting certified, he worked his way through the rest of college on emergency-room and ambulance crews, and (with further training in wilderness medicine) spent summers as a mountain guide in the Grand Tetons and the Alps.

The Peace Corps accepted Prenger as soon as he graduated in 2016. In the southern African nation of Lesotho, he was assigned to a boarding school for children with intellectual and physical disabilities. There, he scrambled to fill a variety of roles: managing medications, writing grants, creating a curriculum, and working with the kitchen staff to improve nutrition. “When I first arrived,” he recalls, “the cafeteria didn’t have any furniture, so the kids were eating off the floor.” He managed to secure funding for tables and chairs.

Although the days often felt longer living in a mud hut with no running water or electricity, Prenger was inspired by his charges’ joie de vivre. “It was the most humbling two years of my life,” he says, “and it was a beautiful experience.” A friend who was working for an aid group suggested a profession in which he might find similar fulfillment: nursing.

Back in the States, Prenger began applying to MDE programs. Like Kleinberg, he chose Columbia Nursing for its global network—and for the chance to join its first cohort of Coverdell Fellows. “To be in the inaugural class is kind of special,” he says. “And the financial aspect was compelling for sure.”

He, too, plans to continue on to earn his DNP. After that, he dreams of a job that will fulfill his craving for both adrenaline and meaningful service. “I’d like to combine my interests in health, humanitarian aid, and diplomacy and maybe work for an organization like Doctors Without Borders or the State Department or the WHO,” he explains. “I enjoy getting out of my comfort zone, and I’ll never stop chasing new adventures.”

Pascale Chataigne, MS ’19, DNP ’21

HRSA Scholar

When Chataigne was 14, her family left behind a relatively comfortable life in Haiti and immigrated to Malden, Massachusetts. “My parents sacrificed a lot so that my sister and I could have better opportunities,” she says. Her mother, a skilled nurse, started over as a nurse’s aide; her father, an accountant, took a job as a security guard. Despite their struggles, they put their daughters’ education ahead of everything else. And they were fiercely proud when their youngest was recruited with a scholarship to Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire.

Chataigne had hoped to become a doctor, but by the time she graduated on a premed track, she wasn’t so sure. Then she attended her best friend’s childbirth—and encountered her first midwife. “I realized that this was the model of care I wanted to pursue,” she recalls. “Midwifery approaches the person’s whole health. The work involves advocacy for women, which is something I’ve always been passionate about. It serves the cause of Black women particularly, considering their poorer outcomes. It fits who I am.”

After entering Columbia Nursing’s MDE program in 2018, Chataigne did her global integration experience in Ethiopia, where she witnessed conditions similar to those her mother had described in Haiti. “They would schedule a procedure to repair a uterine prolapse, and have to postpone it when the electricity cut out,” she says. “The providers created innovative solutions to overcome the lack of resources and funding, such as using IV tubing for artificial rupture of membranes in labor.” She was inspired by their skills, resourcefulness, and compassion.

Chataigne continued on in Columbia’s nurse-midwifery program, winning a HRSA scholarship in 2020—for her final academic year. She’d considered applying earlier but thought the program was too competitive to be a realistic option. Now she advises other students not to wait as long as she did, saying, “Don’t dismiss the possibility. You never know unless you try.”

Once she completes her DNP, she plans to fulfill her service obligation in New York; Washington, D.C.; or Atlanta, at a practice that primarily serves women of color. Her long-term goal is to focus on health-care education in the U.S. or elsewhere—perhaps Haiti or Ethiopia. “At Columbia, I’ve had awesome preceptors, fantastic clinical experiences, and amazing friends,” she says. “Receiving a HRSA scholarship means that I’m a few steps closer to a future reality where I’ll have the financial freedom to support causes I care about here, as well as family members in Haiti.”

Pascale Chatalgne in front of nurse mural.

Pascale Chatalgne, MS '19, DNP '21

Michaela Rahimi, MS ’19, DNP ’21

HRSA Scholar

As a teenager in New York’s Westchester County, Rahimi was passionate about politics. “I liked to get into debates and go to protests,” she recalls. But it was only by a circuitous route that her activism led her toward health care. After earning a BA in sociology from the State University of New York at Geneseo in 2012, she spent a few years working for nonprofit organizations—running an after-school program for high school girls and promoting youth leadership in HIV education. She also volunteered as a case manager and patient advocate for two New York City abortion-access organizations and trained with a Brooklyn-based doula service that serves low-income women of color.

Those efforts brought Rahimi into contact with “some great nurses and midwives,” she says, “who I thought were really impressive, cool people.” In addition, they heightened her awareness of the inequities in maternal outcomes for underserved populations across America. Then came the epiphany: midwifery drew together all the strands of her previous work on sexual health and reproductive agency. “Abortion access goes hand in hand with the right to parent,” she observes. “It’s all about making choices for your body and your family. They’re two sides of the same coin.”

Rahimi applied to several nursing schools, and what sold her on Columbia was the fact that its nurse-midwifery program was the longest-established one in this country. (She was also attracted to Columbia’s global integration program, which she completed in Ethiopia.) When she finishes her DNP, she plans to fulfill her service requirement in a large, urban hospital. Then she hopes to open a multidisciplinary practice of her own, with “maybe a couple midwives, a couple family nurse practitioners, a couple pediatric nurse practitioners.”

By reducing her postgraduate debt load, she says, the HRSA scholarship has given her some “breathing space” to achieve that ambition. “I applied twice before I was accepted,” Rahimi says. The first time, I turned out not to be eligible. The second time, I was rejected. I almost didn’t apply the third time. But I’m really glad I did.”

Michaela Rahimi in front of Nursing building.

Michaela Rahimi, MS '19, DNP '21

Elizabeth Gary, MS ’15

HRSA alumna

Headshot of Elizabeth Gary.

Elizabeth Gary, MS '15

Growing up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, Gary’s greatest inspiration was her mother—a single parent of six who worked as a home health aide while struggling with addiction. “We had to live with my grandmother for a while, but she eventually overcame her drug habit and regained custody,” Gary recalls. “Watching her showed me what strength is.”

It also spurred her to find a way to help others. As a high school student, Gary volunteered at a nearby medical center. When she rotated to the labor and delivery unit, she had an “ah-ha” moment. “This is where all the happiness in the hospital seemed to be. I felt like I belonged there.”

Intending to become an ob-gyn, Gary scored a scholarship to Bowdoin College in Maine. She was the first person in her family to go to a four-year college. But as a premed double-majoring in English literature, she felt crushed by stress, and her grades suffered. In her junior year, Gary shifted her sights to midwifery. After graduating in 2011, she applied to nursing school at the University of Maine—only to be rejected due to her lackluster transcript.

Refusing to accept defeat, Gary returned to New York and met with an admissions representative at Columbia Nursing. “I explained my whole life story to him, trying to make sure I truly had a chance of getting into the MDE program,” she says. “I was blown away by how supportive and compassionate he was.” When she received her acceptance letter, she adds, “I was like, ‘I can’t believe this. My life is turning around.’”

But Gary was also stunned by the cost of her tuition, which was covered only partially by financial aid; she had to take out sizable loans to cover the difference, as well as her living expenses. She applied for a HRSA scholarship once she’d completed her BSN—and made the cut. While studying for her MSN in nurse-midwifery, Gary acted as a student ambassador for the program, encouraging other applicants from low-income backgrounds to follow in her footsteps.

After earning her degree, Gary spent three years at Mount Sinai Hospital’s women’s health clinic, providing care to low-income patients. In 2018, she moved with her husband to Chinle, Arizona, where she works at a clinic that serves women from the local Navajo Reservation. She gave birth to her own son at the facility a few months after arriving.

“The women here face issues like those in the developing world,” Gary says. “Most of them live in substandard housing, often without electricity, running water, or any heat supply other than a wood stove. There’s a lot of domestic violence, substance abuse, depression, and suicide, as well as comorbidities like diabetes and high blood pressure.” COVID-19 has hit the community particularly hard.

Yet Gary feels invigorated by the challenges of her work and by the resilience of her patients and her colleagues. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “Wherever I go, I want to be serving people in the greatest need.”

Grace Kelley, MS ’18

HRSA Alumna

Headshot of Grace Kelley

Grace Kelley, MS '18

Kelley, too, was inspired by her mother’s struggles and triumphs. Her mom had become pregnant as a teenager and given birth to a baby boy; with family support, she went on to college, married, and had three more kids (of which Kelley was the first). She also became a prominent agricultural engineer, spending much of her time away on business. Kelley’s father served as a stay-at-home parent, learning to cook dinner and braid his daughters’ hair. “Our parents encouraged us to question the way things are and to be open-minded about things like gender roles,” Kelley recalls. “I’ve always been interested in why some people aren’t treated fairly and how we can try to change that.”

Drawn to health care as an arena for activism, Kelley enrolled at Kalamazoo College as a premed. But after finding that she preferred other subjects to calculus and chemistry, she switched her major to human development and social relations. Between classes, she threw herself into community organizing and worked as an outdoor education leader.

After graduation, she took a certification course as a wilderness first responder, which reignited her interest in medicine. But what really changed the course of her life was a chance encounter while working as a waitress at the local Olive Garden. “One of my customers happened to be the CEO of a hospital,” she explains. “We struck up a conversation, and I mentioned the things I was thinking about. He was like, ‘Have you ever heard of a nurse practitioner? You sound like one to me.’” Following his advice, Kelley pursued CNA training and found a job at a nursing home. She loved the work and decided to become an NP.

Kelley chose Columbia Nursing for its accelerated MDE program, its global offerings, and its diverse patient population and student body. “I felt so privileged to be there that I wanted to take advantage of all the experiences it offered,” she says. She represented the school’s students in the University Senate and was ultimately elected co-chair of that body’s student affairs committee. For her global integration experience, she went to Ghana, where she assisted midwives at a rural hospital and did research on toileting hygiene in the country’s schools—which typically lack running water.

She won the HRSA scholarship during her second year at Columbia. Then, during her final year, tragedy struck: her younger brother died of an accidental opioid overdose. Kelley was devastated, but she resolved to honor his memory through her work. “If I can prevent one person from having that outcome,” she says, “that’s doing right by him.”

After earning her master’s, Kelley signed on with a primary care clinic run by Packard Health, a not-for-profit Federally Qualified Health Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan, an underserved community not far from her childhood home. “From the first day,” she recalls, “it became clear that my bread and butter would be mental health and addiction.” In addition to treating patients, she works to improve educational support for Packard’s advanced practice providers, hosting monthly meetings to discuss topic reviews, guideline updates, and other material aimed at improving quality of care.

This career choice, she notes, would have been impossible without the HRSA program. “There’s a discrepancy between studying health inequities at a place like Columbia Nursing and being able to work at a not-for-profit health-care entity after you graduate,” Kelley says. “If I was under pressure to pay back student loans, I might have said, ‘I wish I could work there, but I just can’t.’ Not having that obstacle is huge.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Columbia Nursing Magazine.