Mark Brown / University of St. Thomas
School of Nursing founding faculty member Anna Kam.

Anna Kam – Passionate for Transcultural Nursing

Growing up in Okinawa, Japan, the child of white, American-born parents, Dr. Anna Kam was surrounded by people who didn’t look like her or speak her language. The small international school where her parents taught attracted students from everywhere, but especially catered to the biracial children of American GIs and Japanese mothers– kids who didn’t fit easily into either American or Japanese society. It was a diverse tight-knit community where people looked out for each other. And it was there that she met her future husband Jay Kam, an ethnically Chinese student.

When Kam came to Minnesota to study nursing, she didn’t fit in, in a different way.

“I looked like everybody, but I didn’t feel like everybody. I didn’t understand some of the things that were going on culturally,” she explained. Fortunately, she was welcomed by two young Hmong women, “who took me home, fed me rice, introduced me to pho,” and “made the world make a little more sense to me at that moment.”

Dr. Anna Kam, clinical faculty, at the School of Nursing

As a “third-culture kid” – someone raised in a culture different from their parents – Kam has always found it easy to relate to others who have had the experience of living in a blend of cultures, such as those from immigrant or refugee families. She’s brought that empathy and experience to her work as a nurse, and subsequently, as a teacher of nursing, feeling a special camaraderie with students who don’t feel “mainstream.”

“Not speaking someone’s language doesn’t pose a barrier to me, much,” said Kam, who has become accustomed to understanding body language. She recalled when the daughter of a Russian-speaking patient told her that she assumed Kam spoke Russian, too, because of how well she related to her mother.

“I’ve been most centered with patients who are non-English speaking, or who are experiencing health care from a different cultural framework,” said Kam.

She became a nurse out of a desire to live a life of service, as her parents had done. She worked as an oncology nurse and then as an in-hospital nurse educator in Seattle before returning to Minnesota with her family, where she transitioned to teaching.

She even created her own master’s degree in cross-cultural nursing and later earned her doctorate in nursing practice with a focus in transcultural nursing from Augsburg University—one of only a few such programs in the country.

Championing diversity in nursing

Kam’s experience and education makes her uniquely qualified to help train a new generation of culturally responsive caregivers at the new School of Nursing at the University of St. Thomas.

When she learned that the school aims to help serve the health needs of diverse populations in urban and rural areas, as well as to train those who are currently underrepresented in the profession to become nurses, she was eager to join the effort.

The school defines “underrepresented” broadly, including not only people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds – such as Black, Indigenous and people of color – but also those who are low-income, or who come from rural Minnesota.

Anna has great empathy for BIPOC and underrepresented students.

Dr. Martha Scheckel, Founding Director, School of Nursing

“Anna has great empathy for BIPOC and underrepresented students,” Dr. Martha Scheckel, the founding director of the School of Nursing at St. Thomas, said. “She has a strong focus on assuring the success of students who historically might not otherwise pursue a nursing degree.”

“We want people in nursing who have the lived experiences and come from the populations that are being served," Kam said. "We need public health nurses, nursing faculty, and nurse managers who represent diverse communities involved in the decision-making."

The lived experiences of the health care staff are important because “your health is based, in large part, on your cultural practices,” she said. “I can spend my whole life trying to teach someone how to take care of people from a different culture, or you can just have someone from that different culture be a nurse,” she added.

“Ultimately, I’m about serving communities that are suffering the highest levels of health disparities, which are communities of color,” she said. “And to do that, I really think we need nurses of color.”

The holistic review process

To recruit a different kind of nurse, one that approaches health care from a whole-person perspective, the School of Nursing developed a holistic admissions process, in which Kam played a key role.

Holistic review has become the norm in medical schools over the past decade-plus, but it’s a newer concept for nursing.

“Holistic admissions is really based on the idea of admitting a whole person–we’re not admitting a GPA,” Kam said. “We’re admitting a human that’s going to do a very human-based job.”

The holistic review process includes not only metrics like a student’s grade point average—the students have to show they are capable of doing the academic work—but also experiences and attributes, especially those that show students understand how to relate well with people.

From her work teaching at community colleges, Kam learned that some of the best nursing students were people who had been bartenders, hairdressers, taxi drivers – people who had “dealt with humanity at its best and worst,” as Kam put it. “Compassion really can’t be taught,” she said.

The admissions process also looks for attributes like empathy and resilience in prospective students, and how they connect with people. Kam said a good nurse will pick up on little cues, like what a patient is watching on TV, or what books are on their bedside table, and find ways to engage with them.

“You’re taking care of a person, not a diagnosis,” Kam said. “They’re a whole person!”

Scheckel said that Kam’s academic background­ and her previous experience with holistic admissions in the community college system brought a level of expertise to the team’s process, allowing her to “take the ball and run with it.”

This “third-culture kid” is looking forward to using her experience to train a unique kind of nurse: the Tommie nurse.

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