Aspiring nurse practitioner a shining example of community advocacy

Meredith Walsh earns state award for commitment to Burmese refugees in Worcester

By Jim Fessenden

UMass Medical School Communications

April 29, 2013

UMass Medical School student Meredith Walsh, MPH, RN, was named by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education as one of its “29 Who Shine” honorees for 2013. The award honors outstanding public university and college graduates, one from each UMass campus, state university and community college in the state, for their academic achievement and community service. Walsh will be recognized by Governor Deval Patrick for her contributions to the commonwealth at the third annual “29 Who Shine” student recognition ceremony on May 2 at the State House.

Walsh (at right), who will graduate with a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Nursing on June 2, is an active volunteer in the community of refugees from Burma living in Worcester and is co-founder and executive director of the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project. Established in 2010, the nonprofit organization supports the city’s growing community of refugees from Burma and helps them assimilate to life in Central Massachusetts. After graduation, Walsh will begin employment as a family nurse practitioner at the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center in Worcester.

Prior to enrolling at UMMS, Walsh was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines and spent four years in Thailand on the Burma border, first working in refugee camps, where she conducted health assessments for the American Refugee Committee (an international non-governmental organization) and later at the world-renowned Mae Tao Clinic, where she worked in maternal and child health programming. Realizing that clinical skills would enable her to do more for displaced, traumatized refugees, she enrolled in the Graduate School of Nursing to earn an advanced nursing degree.

“I came [to Worcester] because I needed clinical skills,” said Walsh. “Working in public health can be like looking at the forest and I wanted to be able to see the trees.”

While studying nursing at UMMS, Walsh had a strong desire to continue to help the population she had come to know on the Thai-Burma border. Of the more than 2 million people who have fled Burma amidst the decades-long violent civil conflict, more than 200 have resettled in the Worcester area, and new families arrive every few months. Through word of mouth, Walsh learned about a group of volunteers who were informally offering services to the local population of refugees from Burma. Walsh and her fellow volunteers founded the refugee assistance project to support them as they transition to life in their new city.

While all refugees have access to resettlement assistance from various federal programs, this program offers supplemental or “wrap-around” services that aren’t available elsewhere. The nonprofit organization creates opportunities for refugees to learn from each other and from local volunteers, to share cultural traditions, and to successfully navigate the complex health care and education systems. A cornerstone of the project is a family-orientation program in which a refugee family is matched with a local volunteer who helps them navigate day-to-day life in Worcester. Families get help with whatever they need—from going to the grocery store or visiting a park to scheduling a doctor’s appointment.

With the assistance of an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship she received in 2010, Walsh also runs a youth development project for refugees from Burma ages 15 to 24. The goal of the program is to help participants gain life skills that will aid them with schoolwork, employment and higher education. Walsh also received a grant from the UMMS Office of Global Health that allowed her to return to the Thai-Burma border to study women’s health decisions related to contraceptive choices after the termination of a pregnancy. In 2013, she received an MLK Semester of Service Student Award from UMMS to work with the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project to help local refugee youth reflect on their life experiences (some of which are traumatic) by engaging in and learning about the healing power of storytelling and performance.

Originally from Memphis, Walsh received a bachelor’s degree from Smith College and a master’s in public health from Tulane University. She was the recipient of the 2013 Student Community Engagement Award from the Colleges of Worcester Consortium for her work in founding the refugee project.

Each of Massachusetts’ 29 public college and university campuses selected its “29 Who Shine” awardee based on criteria established by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. Students were required to be residents of Massachusetts who had a strong academic record and a history of civic engagement.