When Service is in Your Blood: A Student's Passion for Helping Others

Sept. 27, 2018

When Jessica Mattia-Barry saw her fellow DNP students during RISE (Resident Intensive Summer Experience) in August, 2018, she was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were many other Native Americans in attendance. It was a far cry from her time as an undergraduate nursing student at Creighton University in 1991, where she experienced the culture shock of being one of the school’s few Native American students. “I was very naïve coming from a place like Phoenix, where you have a lot of people from different cultural backgrounds,” she says. The diversity she witnessed at the UA College of Nursing was a welcome revelation. “I was really happy to see more Native sisters,” she says.

Mattia-Barry, who is half Tohono O’odham and half Mexican-American, spent her earliest years in Ajo, Arizona. Straddling both cultures was challenging, especially when her parents divorced and she moved to Phoenix with her mother. Close with her grandparents, she learned about Tohono O’odham culture and traditions while growing up in a major southwestern metropolis.

Mattia-Barry began her academic career in Nebraska, where she earned an Environmental Science degree with a specialty in Toxicology. A semester abroad in the Dominican Republic, volunteering at an underserved hospital, proved to be a game-changer. Hoping to volunteer in an ER, she was initially dismayed to be assigned to work with labor and delivery nurses.

“If we move back to Arizona I'm hoping to get a job with the Tohono O'odham Nation as a DNP. There's a clinic in the village closer to where my grandfather's from. You get some interesting isolated cases out there, and a lot of people who need access to help." ~ Jessica Mattia-Barry, DNP student

“I thought, ‘I don’t want to work with babies.’ But they took me under their wing and showed me the ropes,” she says. “Pre-and-post-partum were in one big room and it was stacked with beds. The doctors wouldn’t show up for impromptu deliveries, so the nurses delivered the babies.  They were the ones doing all the care and I would help them. I thought, ‘I’ve found my people.’ It was at that point that I said, ‘OK, I’m going to finish up my science degree and go to nursing school.’”

In the years since earning her nursing degree, Mattia-Barry worked in NICU and telemetry at Tucson Medical Center, followed by a four-year stint in Indian Health Services on the Tohono O’odham reservation. After taking time off to be a stay-at-home-mom, she began a career as a school nurse in the Tucson Unified School District. In 2014, her family moved to Wisconsin, where she continues her school nursing career in the Sheboygan Falls school district.

Through it all, she maintained a passion for serving the underserved. “I’m not being idealistic about it,” she says. “There’s such a need for it and this is the best way I can help.” Her advocacy for the underserved extends beyond the realm of health care. She’s also a supporter of encouraging other Native American students to take advantage of the opportunities offered by institutions like the University of Arizona.

Having crossed various cultural barriers on her own, she’s well-aware of the misunderstandings and anxieties that can hold young students back from unknown territory. By way of illustration, she relates the story of a cousin and recent high school graduate and valedictorian who planned to attend Pima Community College. “I asked her, ‘Why are you going to Pima first when you’d have opportunities at the UA?’” says Mattia-Barry. “She told me she was going to apply but that a counselor told her she’d be wasting her time going to the UA because they don’t like Indians. I have so much regret about not being part of her life prior to that, because I would have advocated more for her had I known that was the situation. There’s a misconception that expectations need to remain low when you come from the reservation.”

That desire to lead by example, and to advocate for the disadvantaged, was one factor that led her to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice at the University of Arizona College of Nursing. “I wanted to become a nurse practitioner, but it just never seemed like the right time,” she says. The arrival of her 45th birthday – with kids old enough to be more self-sufficient and a stable home life – set the stage.  She considered programs in Wisconsin, but the online distance learning available through the UA DNP program – as well as personal experience with UA nursing graduates – sealed the deal. “I’ve always held UA in high esteem and it was always my first program to apply to,” she says. “At TMC, I worked primarily with UA graduates and they were some of the best nurses I’ve ever known. They had a really good sense of teamwork, a really good sense of theory.”

As for the future? Mattia-Barry’s five-year plan is straightforward: earn her DNP with a specialty in Family Practice, get licensed and work with underserved populations.  Although there are tribal clinics near her in Wisconsin, she’s open to the possibility of returning to the Copper State. “If we move back to Arizona I’m hoping to get a job with the Tohono O’odham Nation as a DNP,” she says. “There’s a clinic in the village close to where my grandfather’s from. You get some interesting isolated cases out there, and a lot of people who need access to help.”