As a young girl, Aisha wanted to be a journalist. After all, “I like to talk. I like to ask questions,” she said. Enjoying talking and asking questions hasn’t changed, but what she wanted her career to be has.
Her mind changed as she tagged along with her father, a hospital lab scientist and her hero. Of course, she thought he was a doctor. To many in her Gambian hometown, a doctor was a man who worked in a hospital while a nurse was a woman who worked in a hospital. That meant that, even though her father was neither, neighbors would come to him for help with things like explaining their medications to them. Seeing her father help so many people was both fascinating and empowering for her.
But Aisha’s father is her hero for another reason as well. He was the first person in his family to finish high school and attend college. This opened his eyes, she says, to some cultural practices that he didn’t agree with, like female genital mutilation (FGM). It is still fairly common—around 75% of Gambian women ages 15 to 49 had undergone the practice in 2013. He would not stand for this for Aisha or her sister, even though it meant his mother wouldn’t speak to him for a couple of years. Since then, none of Aisha’s younger female cousins have undergone FGM either. She’s so grateful and proud of her father’s bravery for refusing to carry on this practice in their family that she saw so many of her friends experience.
As Aisha grew up, she learned more about what nurses do. Her father had a friend who was a nurse—the first male nurse Aisha had ever heard of—and she observed what nurses do in a clinical setting. It was there she decided that she didn’t want to be a doctor. She wanted to be a nurse. In high school, where she majored in science, a career day further proved that for her.
She began university with a scholarship to a small university in Gambia. Because many of the prerequisites—chemistry, biology, etc.—are completed in high school, Aisha had three years of nursing school ahead of her. Aisha fondly remembers living in the dorms. Unlike American universities, Gambian universities do not provide a meal plan. Instead, Aisha and her friends would trade off cooking. A few would shop for groceries and cook dinner while others studied or took much-needed naps. Everyone knew each other.
With only her final year left in nursing school in Gambia, an opportunity to join her mom in New York City presented itself—and she couldn’t pass it up.
Aisha’s parents separated when she was young, and her mother had lived in the US since. Just as she started school that semester, Aisha’s mother received her Green Card. She made a quick decision, and after starting the semester on Monday, she was on her way to the US on Thursday. She was on a six-month visa at first while she decided whether she would visit and then return to Gambia to finish nursing school or stay on in the US and complete her education in New York City.
With her mother’s encouragement, Aisha applied to Lehman College. At first, she thought her credits would transfer so that she’d just be finishing her degree. But because her prerequisites were completed in high school, she had to start from scratch. In 2016, she began once again as a freshman. She spent her first two years easily passing the prerequisites and helping her classmates. She also became a peer tutor to incoming freshmen, something that did not exist at her Gambian university. In addition to her schoolwork, she became a certified nurse’s aide like her mother.
“I wanted to know what nursing is all about in the US,” she said. It showed her she was on the right track.
The nursing school curriculum was so different in the US than it was in Gambia. When she started it was like she’d never done nursing before, she said. In Gambia, she would spend six weeks focusing on one aspect of nursing and then go straight into clinicals Monday through Friday. In the US, nursing school is structured much differently with more exams and more class time. Clinicals are more observational than hands-on. Aisha feels that this double learning style gives her an edge.
“I got to experience the clinical aspect. And I got to experience Gambia—most of the machines that you see here [in the US], they don’t even have in Gambia. So, I have seen a lot of things. I’ve gotten a lot of exposure.”
During her final semester, as with so many final semesters across the world in 2020, meant a new challenge. COVID-19 pushed her final semester courses online, and she almost felt sick. Aisha likes to be hands-on and ask questions. She learns from talking about concepts. Her favorite places to study and complete assignments—the student lounge and the library—were no longer available. These weren’t just her getaway places; they had reliable internet.
At home, her Wi-Fi couldn’t handle the demand. So many people were using it. During an exam, her internet quit working, and her score suffered. So she made arrangements with a friend to complete assignments and exams at their home where the internet was better. And to overcome not being in class with her other nursing students, she set up Zoom chats with her classmates to discuss schoolwork. Arranging it all was hard, but it helped.
Despite it all, Aisha graduated in May this year with honors and recently passed her NCLEX.
Her goal is ultimately to help others through her nursing career—both patients and other nurses. During her time at Lehman College, she took two volunteer trips. She visited both Nicaragua and Peru with groups that provide access to healthcare to communities in need. These communities felt very much like home. She wants to help like that in Gambia in the future.
To nursing students now and in the future, she has some advice.
“Never give up. No matter what your grades are. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of obstacles. It takes a lot of perseverance and patience to get where you want to get to. Get a friend, a buddy—a study buddy—and a mentor.”
Aisha Faal, BSN, graduated with her Bachelor of Science in Nursing in May from Lehman College in New York, New York, USA. She is a member of Sigma’s Delta Zeta Chapter at Lehman College.