Arizona Nursing PhD Student Overcomes Adversity on Her Path to Academic Success

Sept. 30, 2019

For the first time as a University of Arizona College of Nursing PhD student, Cristina Rivera Carpenter is working one job and not two to three. Last year, in addition to beginning a position with the University of California, San Francisco’s global health fellowship, the HEAL Initiative, she taught chemistry, science and ACT prep to high school students, worked as a school nurse, and also taught in Northern Arizona University’s American Indian Nursing program.

“I had to leave my clinical job because of the pace and the challenge of doing a PhD in three years,” says Rivera Carpenter. “That was a huge transition because for most of the past two years, I’ve worked two jobs at a time and sometimes up to three. It’s been really hard to balance work, family and school.”

Currently in her third year in the program, the Robert Wood Johnson Future of Nursing Scholar and single mother of four’s academic road has had its share of bumps. But thanks to a positive spirit, Rivera Carpenter has maintained a 3.8 gpa and made it to the final year of her degree. This semester, she’s entering the beginning stages of her dissertation and in the spring she’ll be completing her study, going through analysis and gearing up to defend by June 30. “The past two years have been intense,” she says. “But this will be another level of intensity.” Rivera Carpenter is ready, though. Her drive to succeed is tried and true.

"Pursuing a PhD is something I always wanted to do but never thought I’d be able to. In that way, it’s been really great but it’s also been really challenging.” ~ Cristina Rivera Carpenter, Arizona Nursing PhD Student

For the bulk of the past ten years, Rivera Carpenter, who is Mestiza, has lived, worked and studied in the Navajo Nation. Drawn to a nursing career because of its focus on addressing health disparity, equity and population health, she has a powerful desire to give back to her community. Her ultimate goal, which is the focus of her dissertation, is to foster a more culturally relevant approach to health care that combines mainstream methodologies with those espoused by Indigenous cultures.

“Cristina has a rare authenticity and commitment to deliver high quality and culturally congruent health enhancement strategies to Indigenous communities,” says Rivera Carpenter’s faculty mentor, Arizona Nursing Clinical Associate Professor Michelle Kahn-John, PhD, RN, PMHNP-BC, GNP. “Through her work as an Indigenous nurse and scholar, I’m confident she’ll open the hearts and minds of communities, healthcare organizations and the scientific community through her gifts of powerful discourse and her admirable scholarship and advocacy for Native American and Indigenous populations across the globe.”

We caught up with Cristina recently to hear more about her busy nursing career thus far.

Can you tell us about the topic of your dissertation?

I’m interested in learning about wellness among Indigenous women. In the research for my dissertation, we’ll be looking specifically at wellness among Diné women in Navajo Nation border towns. One of the things we think is pretty unique is that I’ll be using an integrated methodology for the research, integrating mainstream, Western qualitative methodology with Indigenous methodologies. There’s really no guidebook for that within nursing, so we’re learning and developing it as we go.

What are the difference between the two methodologies?

With western methodologies, specifically a qualitative descriptive approach, you’re looking at summarizing what the experience is and how people are describing it. You stay very close to the data, and this is less analytical than other qualitative methods. With Indigenous methodologies, they originate from Indigenous world views. One of the main things to remember is that within Indigenous worldviews we have a difference because there’s no Cartesian Split, an enlightenment-era development within western theory and philosophy, which separated first the mind and body of the self, then the self from others, then from the living world. That connection remains intact in indigenous worldviews, so Indigenous methodologies are foundationally relational, reciprocal and relationship-based.

What is the goal of your research?

To describe wellness and the maintenance of wellness among this group of women, because it’s something that hasn’t been looked into from a strength-based, Nursing perspective. A lot of times when working with Indigenous people, research has taken a deficit-based approach in looking at health indicators that are seen as problematic. Those indicators are seen as something that’s concerning and needs to be addressed, rather than building upon strengths that are inherent in Indigenous communities. When we think about health and wellness, Indigenous health models are really wellness models. The focus is on holistic aspects, like mind/body/spirit rather than on a specific health indicator.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced during your PhD career?

Pursuing a PhD is something I always wanted to do but never thought I’d be able to. In that way, it’s been really great but it’s also been really challenging. At times, we have really struggled with economic insecurity and in the past two years our biggest struggle has been with housing insecurity. Holistically and also health-wise, it’s affected my family. We talk about social determinants of health a lot, but until you live it, I don’t think you can truly understand it.

We acknowledge the difficulties but we have a lot of support. I have a really supportive family, and awesome social support from friends, and at the end of the day that’s what it’s really about: Family and community. That’s why I’m doing this program and that’s also what’s sustained us along the way.

I’m trying to look forward after having been in survival mode for the last couple of years. We went through multiple life transitions and that was hard and really challenging for both me and my kids, but trying to face it in a positive way has helped us become closer as a family.

How has your student experience at Arizona Nursing informed your approach to teaching?

Seeing how my mentor, Dr. Michelle Kahn-John, supports her students has been really inspirational. I try to take from her example and give back to my students while I’m also currently receiving mentoring support. She has been a wonderful example of the kind of faculty that I hope to be. In fact, my entire committee has been great. I work a lot also with Dr. Marylyn McEwen and also Dr. Leah Stauber, and then from UA American Indian Studies, Dr. Patrisia Gonzales. Things like rigor are really important but it’s also important to be invested and be supportive because that can make such a huge difference for students, especially if you’re struggling or going through transitions related to school.

What are your hopes for the future?

In time I’m hoping to develop a career that’s in line with my interests and values. I really love teaching and working with students, especially students that may face additional barriers on their journey to education. I was a teen mom, so it’s important to me to support other minority students or students who come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds or underrepresented communities. I’m falling in love with research, especially social justice and equity-focused research, so I’d like to continue with that, too. And then I really have an interest in global health, because I think a lot of our Indigenous issues are very local but also very global. I would love to find a way to blend those things.