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ASU initiative helps refugees reclaim careers in health care

September 28, 2023

Certified nurse assistant program graduates its 1st cohort

Olena Zhemchuzhnykova worked as a registered nurse for 20 years in her home country of Ukraine.

A year and a half ago, with Ukraine under attack by Russia, she came to the United States, leaving her profession and almost everything else behind.

“All my life I worked with patients,” she said. “I loved it.”

On Sept. 21, Zhemchuzhnykova dressed up for her graduation from training as a certified nursing assistant in a unique program through Arizona State University. She was one of five refugees in Phoenix to participate in a paid certified nursing assistant training program as a way to start a new life in the U.S. Two of the other graduates are from Syria, and two are from Afghanistan.

The goal is for the graduates to pass the state licensing exam, after which they’ll work for South Mountain Post Acute care facility in south Phoenix, where they trained.

A grant from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement is enabling ASU’s refugee-support initiative, Education for Humanity, to offer training, job skills, experience and credential attainment to prepare refugees for employment in professional or skilled career fields. The upskilling and reskilling initiative, called the Arizona Refugee Career Pathways program, leveraged funds from the Arizona Governor’s Office to train refugees in high-need areas like health care.

Like many refugees, Zhemchuzhnykova can’t just pick up her career in the U.S. She must start at the beginning. The Arizona Refugee Career Pathways program is a chance for refugees to do that and eventually work their way toward higher paying health care careers.

“It’s a chance for us to get a new life, to live normally, to work,” she said.

In addition to learning how to be a CNA, the refugees had English classes, provided by Friendly House, an immigrant-assistance organization in Phoenix. Friendly House was just one of several partners with ASU in the program, according to Joanna Zimmerman, associate director of Education for Humanity.

“This is unique in that it’s a paid training program, which is great because often, in order to advance, refugees have to make critical decisions in terms of opportunity costs, so many may want to pursue education or training opportunities but have to work because they’re the breadwinner for their family,” she said.

Another partner is Goodwill.

“Our career coach for the program is at Goodwill, which has full-service career centers, so they’re a strong resource in terms of job seeking,” Zimmerman said.

ASU assesses the refugees who apply to the career pathways program to determine their eligibility, then helps them set up a career navigation plan.

“We ask them what skills they have, what they want to do, and together we assess the gap that we need to fill to get them there,” Zimmerman said.

“We had someone who graduated from an HVAC technician program and someone who enrolled in CPA courses.”

So far, more than 40 refugees have come through the program.

“We want to use the funds in fields where there are barriers to entry, like the need for a credential or the need to be licensed,” she said.

The course included classroom and lab instruction and supervised direct patient care. The students learned basic nursing assistant skills, emergency procedures, safety and infection-control procedures, and age-specific mental health and social service needs.

Another partner is the Arizona Health Care Association, which is working to fill hundreds of job openings for certified nurse assistants.

“CNAs assist with daily living, such as toileting, bathing, dining, making the beds,” said Jeffreys Barrett, director of workforce development for the Arizona Health Care Association.

“Without the CNAs, a nursing home wouldn’t function.”

He told the graduates that they are needed now more than ever.

“We are at a point in our country where your gifts will be appreciated more than they ever have been, not only because we need you, but also because you’re bringing ‘you’ along with it,” he said.

“We know that in our skilled nursing facilities, we’re seeing Ukrainian seniors and Afghan seniors and Syrian seniors. Wouldn’t it be nice to see somebody from your homeland taking care of you?”

Employers like South Mountain Post Acute are to be commended, according to Travis Thompson, community development program supervisor for the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program, who spoke at the event.

“They were willing to open their doors and do something unique,” said Thompson, who added that he helps employers to navigate the sponsorship or visa process in hiring refugees.

“I’ve seen refugees who had professional careers stay in low-wage jobs in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s, ‘Where’s my identity? My identity was with the profession I had.’

“But this gives people a path back. They’re not doctors or nurses, but with the support of community and organizers and employers, they can reclaim that career.”

Hebat Alharsha of Syria is the first student who has taken the CNA certification exam, which she passed. She’ll continue English classes before starting work.

Alharsha was a pharmacy student before she came to the U.S. in December 2021 with her sister, Gawaher Alharsha, who also graduated from the program last week.

“I took the program because I needed something here to start and to improve my English,” she said. “I want to continue, maybe in a field in chemistry.”

Zhemchuzhnykova also will keep going in her studies to reclaim her nursing career.

“This is a first step,” she said.

“I’ve met so many kind people here. I’ve never been to the desert before, but it’s beautiful.”

Top photo: Gawaher Alharsha (middle) receives a congratulatory hug from her friend, Maya Almasre, with fellow grad Hebat Alharsha (right) looking on. The Alharsha sisters, who are from Syria, graduated from certified nursing assistant training at South Mountain Post Acute Care Center on Sept. 21. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


ASU Space welcomes 2nd cohort of student ambassadors

17 outstanding ASU undergraduates are forging a path as next-generation space sector leaders

September 28, 2023

ASU Space is introducing its second cohort of ASU Space Student Ambassadors, welcoming 17 Arizona State University undergraduate students from a variety of disciplines. The program continues to bring together outstanding current students with a passion for space to serve as representatives of ASU Space and develop their leadership skills.

The ASU Space Student Ambassador program is a competitive ASU undergraduate leadership and professional development program open to current ASU undergraduate students in their third year or beyond. As ambassadors, selected students represent ASU Space to fellow students, faculty and staff, as well as external organizations and industry partners. It is a joint effort among several ASU groups, including the Interplanetary Initiative, NewSpace, the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the Thunderbird School of Global Management A group of 2023 ASU Space Ambassadors Standing on Palm Walk for a group photo 2023–24 ASU Space Student Ambassadors Download Full Image

The 2023–24 cohort of ASU Space Student Ambassadors represent a variety of schools and 11 different majors from across the university, including political science, engineering, technological leadership, business, astrophysics, robotics, and Earth and space exploration. This assortment of disciplines is reflected in the ambassadors' academic interests, which range from developing new space technologies to investigating the ethical implications of space exploration.

As part of the program, ambassadors will also have the opportunity to build professional relationships, attend conferences, volunteer at community events, sharpen their communication skills and network with space industry professionals. While doing so, they will also learn from each other and explore how their different academic focus areas can contribute to the growing space industry.

Meet the 2023–24 ASU Space Student Ambassadors

In the gallery below, the student ambassadors share about their academic lives, career aspirations and unexpected hobbies. Click through to learn more about them.

At Arizona State University, we believe a deeply transdisciplinary approach is needed to create the social and systems-level solutions that will pave our way as an interplanetary species. We bring together top researchers and scholars from across the university to work with our students and commercial partners, across sectors and disciplines, to help us better understand and expand our reach into the universe. Learn more about how to get involved at

Shireen Dooling

Marketing Manager, Interplanetary Initiative