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Scholar Spotlight: Lia Kaluna

Lia Kaluna is the de Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging’s 2021-2022 Germaine Krysan Undergraduate Scholar. A fourth year BSN student, her project is Identifying Key Landmarks of Central District’s Historically Black Neighborhoods. The project is a part of the Seattle SHARP study. SHARP Portland was originally developed by Raina Croff, PhD, an anthropologist at Oregon Health State University. A local team is now developing SHARP Seattle based on the findings from Dr. Croff and her team. Kaluna’s faculty mentor is Dr. Basia Belza.

Why did you choose nursing?

Originally, I chose nursing because I wanted to support and promote the wellbeing of people in vulnerable states. That transitioned to promoting their health holistically, by looking at more than physical health, like people’s mental health, spiritual health, and social environments. I love nursing because it allows me to encourage and empower patients to care for themselves as best as they can.

I also really like the diversity of the field. You can transition to different areas of care, like research, community health, and critical care. Those are all things that I could do over my entire career and still feel like I’m contributing meaningfully to healthcare overall.

How has your experience at the school of nursing helped with your career trajectory?

The School of Nursing provides students with really good connections. I joined the VALOR (Veterans Affairs Learning Opportunity Residency) program at the Seattle VA because of it, and that was a connection to support an underserved population.

Also, the School of Nursing is focusing a lot on teaching community health and ambulatory care, so preventative care and the outpatient setting. All my healthcare experience before starting nursing school was inpatient. We will always need inpatient care but it’s crucial to meet patients before problems manifest and use preventive care to promote health. UWSoN has given me a greater perspective on holistic, lifelong care, rather than just acute inpatient.

What are you plans after graduations?

There are two different tracks on my mind right now. One is the critical care route straight out of undergrad and then pursuing further education to become a nurse anesthetist. I also have an interest in community-based care, working with Pasifika community members in promoting their health. As kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian), I feel an obligation to supporting and serving my Pacific Islander (PI) communities. I intend to return to Hawai’i where I can serve and commune with fellow kānaka and work in a community health clinic for kānaka.

What is the research project you’re working on with Ola Pasifika?

Ola Pasifika is a Pasifika led research lab at the UW School of Social Work. Ola Pasifika has partnered with several WA based Pacific Islander community organizations, such as the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington (PICA WA), an organization that serves the health and social needs of Pasifika people statewide. With PICA WA, our principle investigators are collaborating with the PI community to create a community health model, which aligns with my aspiration to work in community health with Pasifika people.

With Ola Pasifika, I’m analyzing focus group interviews our lab conducted in collaboration with PICA WA. The focus groups documented the health and economic experiences of different Pasifika communities, like the Marshallese, Tongan, and Samoan communities. Our researchers are looking at what the community believes would benefit their health and economic wellness during the pandemic, as well as how COVID has affected their resilience and health through access to welfare, education, development of community resources, and Pasifika networks of support. For example, with COVID-19 social distance policies, it’s much harder for these Pasifika communities to gather socially, like in church and other community gatherings, as a form of resilience. Social gatherings are prominent places to share information and life experiences, engage in cultural practices, and maintain kinship, which is protective of mental and spiritual wellness.

How did you first get involved with that work?

Ola Pasifika posted an application on Instagram. I applied to work with them because I am committed to revitalizing my culture and engaging in PI community spaces. I wanted to socially engage with other PI community members and give back to my community. I’ve attended cultural clubs at UW for community and social interaction, but Ola Pasifika gave me an opportunity to engage in research that serves the greater PI community. Western-supported research often does not comprehensively capture the experiences of these communities, especially queer and transgender Pacific Islanders (QTPI), which contributes to an overall lack of health interventions that are for and informed by them. Ola Pasifika intends to use the knowledge of QTPI community informants to develop culturally-relevant interventions to promote health.

I grew up in Seattle and I’m mixed identity. So, while I am kanaka, I haven’t always been able to participate in my community as much as I wanted to. I am working through understanding the complexity of my identities while building community. Ola Pasifika provides a unique opportunity for me to learn about and invest in my communities and become more aligned with our collective values. Revitalizing my culture and contributing to my community’s resilience are lifelong commitments I hold gratefully and fiercely.

How did you first get involved with the SHARP [Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo-Imagery] study?

I applied for the UW nursing honors program and was given a list of potential projects to join and support. I was interested in SHARP Seattle, because it is an opportunity for me to collaborate with local Black communities and support a culturally celebratory and community-informed project. As a person of color, I also have an ethical responsibility to invest in anti-oppressive work that supports the BIPoC community at large. My positions of privilege incentivize me to engage further and enter spaces humbly. I must support BIPoC communities and our collective demands for equity and social justice.

Why is are projects like SHARP important?

SHARP Seattle intends to promote the cognitive health of local older Black adults. SHARP addresses the need to create programs for and informed by Black communities, because there’s a lack in Western research. I’ve learned that older Black adults are at higher risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementia related illnesses due to various systemic barriers and social determinants of health, signaling a need for relevant health promotive interventions.

The project focuses on the Central District because it homes historically Black communities. However, due to gentrification, many Black community members have been displaced and the neighborhoods’ dynamics have changed drastically. This poses a problem for older Black adults who then lack tight-knit community and socialization, factors that promote successful aging in place. It promotes cognitive health to be embedded communities where we have a sense of belonging and history and can maintain meaningful social engagement as we age.

SHARP is creating walking routes that can prompt discussion around landmarks that are identified as significant to historically Black Central District neighborhoods. The routes prompt reminiscence, socialization, and exercise, and promote cognitive, social, and physical health.

In my coursework, when we talk about gerontology it tends to be from a White perspective, so having this opportunity is unique. It makes me look at gerontology in a different way. I know that there are many different disparities that older adults face, but I hadn’t explicitly considered aging in my view of intersectionality until I began working on this project. It’s a new perspective.

What’s been an unforgettable experience during your time at the school of nursing?

My community health clinical was an unforgettable experience at the school of nursing. It was my first nursing clinical, and my group partnered with the University District Children’s Center (UDCC) to work on a community-based participatory research (CBPR) project. It was the first time I was introduced to a CBPR model, which I use in my research with Ola Pasifika and SHARP, so it was unknowingly critical to a lot of the work I’m doing now. It’s encouraging to build my skills and make connections between my work throughout my undergraduate career.

Learning about community-based participatory research expanded my view of research and emphasized the importance of partnering with the community to support their ideas and goals in health and wellness. I had a limited understanding of what research could be before this clinical, so engaging in this clinical widened my perspective. I was also interested in understanding how to promote a community’s health rather than an individual patient and understanding the dynamics and challenges in that work.

The UDCC was particularly fun to work with because we got to hang out with kids after about a year being in the pandemic. We weren’t back to being fully in-person, but my clinical group got to visit the site a few times and that uplifted my mood and was really exciting. I’m so grateful to have been able to do some of our community health clinical in-person and work with this community site.