Nov. 29, 2019

BN grad and UCalgary Alumni Achievement Award recipient advocates for youth in Tanzania

50 Faces of Nursing: Arsheen Dhalla, BN’10

Arsheen Dhalla is passionate about building bridges – so passionate, in fact, that she named her non-profit foundation in Zanzibar, Tanzania “Daraja,” which is Swahili for bridge.

“Metaphorically, we aim to bridge people around the world and build foundation, support livelihood and create opportunity in the lives of children and youth in Zanzibar,” Dhalla says of the organization she created after yearly trips there. She was originally inspired to go to Africa by a student she shadowed in her first year at UCalgary Nursing. “She told me all about her various experiences volunteering in Africa – it made me want to do the same. I chose Tanzania mainly because I felt drawn to my roots.” 

As a new graduate in 2010, Dhalla worked for the Pure North S'Energy Foundation, a Calgary-based preventive health and wellness non-profit organization that operates throughout Alberta. She continued to travel to Zanzibar on her time off and volunteer with a local children's home and in a maternity ward at a hospital.

“I was very passionate about the connections I had made abroad and had an aim to grow a stronger presence with the children beyond me travelling there, as one person, making a small impact that wasn't very sustainable,” she explains.

“I invited others to travel with me, including my sister and mom, who are also nurses. They saw the potential to make a difference by operating under the umbrella of something bigger, so we decided to slowly develop programs and register as a Canadian non-profit corporation and charity. The idea was to be able to implement health and empowerment programs and raise funds to facilitate and operate them, all while having volunteers provide expertise, strategy and hands-on support.

“I started with organizing travel for one nurse, who then became a member of our founding Board of Directors, along with my sister and four doctors – a board of seven women, ready to do something more meaningful in Zanzibar with me. Since then we have had over 100 volunteers help us by either traveling abroad, fundraising or running the operations.”

The Daraja Foundation currently supports orphans and vulnerable youth in health and education through mentorship, guidance, life skills education and sponsorship. In 2015, Dhalla left Calgary and moved to Zanzibar to grow Daraja.

Tell us about the work you do and what drives you to do it.

"The Daraja Foundation has provided numerous educational opportunities, helped with the facilitation of small business startups and created a support network of students, local mentors and volunteers. We work very closely with the same children's home that I first volunteered at, so we have had a presence in their lives for almost 10 years.

We are currently focusing on a transition residence, called the Flo House, for young adults aged 18-24, with a focus on guiding and empowering the young girls. The nursing I do is community based, youth-focused and family- or support network-centered.

As a nurse in management, I advocate for young adults, helping them to improve their health and learn wellness and coping strategies through education, mentorship, compassion and personal skill-building. We focus on the social determinants of health that influence the day-to-day lives of each individual youth in our care."

What's a memorable experience you had at UCalgary Nursing and why is it significant in your life or career?

"I value having been a student in Debbie Mansell's nursing leadership class and Dr. Cynthia Mannion's nutrition class. Not only did these classes have an important influence on my career, but my instructors recognized my interest in maternal and child health which led to an opportunity to participate in a study on breastfeeding self-efficacy and the use of prescription medications.

My role in the study was further made possible through the Markin Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP) grant I was fortunate to receive with their support. Since then, staff and instructors such as Karen Cook, Debbie Mansell, Rita Lisella, Dr. Mannion, Dr. Aliyah Dosani and many others kept in touch and stayed updated with what I was doing after I graduated. They continue to support me even almost 10 years later, by showing up at fundraisers, donating to the charity or participating in nominations.

I was invited to speak to a class of Debbie Mansell's nursing students at MRU about my experience in nursing leadership, and that alone lead to nurses from that class traveling all the way to volunteer in Zanzibar with Daraja Foundation. My memorable experiences from U of C and support from the nursing faculty led to many significant opportunities in my life and career, including receiving an Arch Alumni Achievement Award in 2016. I am very grateful for that."

What most excites you about the future of nursing or changes coming in the profession?

"It is very exciting to see how our profession is progressing, growing and diversifying. We have opportunities to practice our profession globally and further advance our education to specialize in a field, participate in research and attain master or practitioner levels of education.

We are now in positions where we have broad skill-sets and leadership qualities, setting us up to be more adaptable, reliable and technologically advanced as a profession. It makes me very proud to be a nurse!"

Is there a nursing issue you are especially passionate about or you would like to change?

"I think we can bring greater awareness to the strong advocacy and empowerment positions that nurses can lead at community and societal levels."

What advice do you have for aspiring nurses?

"As a nurse, there is lots to explore and nothing you can't handle. Work hard, keep learning and remember why you chose this profession. You will be a hard rock in the lives of many people, as well as a soft shoulder to cry on. There is a lot to be proud of in that."

Is there one luxury in life you would rather not live without?

"Yes, a cup of good coffee."

All through 2019, we'll be highlighting 50 Faces of Nursing and profiling nursing members in celebration of our 50th anniversary. For more, visit nursing.ucalgary.ca/50