You can hear it in her voice: cheerfulness, seriousness, softness, steeliness. You know she’s the kind of person who, when encountering a challenge, faces it squarely, marshals her resources, takes a deep breath, and then gets to work making wrong things right. No matter how hard it may be. No matter how long it may take. Ayesha Ali, PhD, MS, RN, is a compassionate warrior for good.
“I’m inspired by people who selflessly do good work and are concerned about the public’s health in the world,” she says. “And because the public’s health is impacted by every aspect of life, I am inspired by many different kinds of people. Young people who recognize the speed with which global warming is occurring and want to save the planet and fight for gun control. Individuals who address issues of human rights in this country and all over the world—all of them inspire me.”
Dr. Ali, associate professor of nursing, is inspiring her students to be agents of change, as well. After the earthquake in 2010 that devastated Haiti, Ali read about a nursing school there where twenty students were killed after the building collapsed. “It just wrung my heart out,” she says. “I contacted the people interviewed for the article and asked about traveling with them to the school. So I went, and when I came back I decided to see if nursing students in my program would be interested in traveling with me the following year.”
For the next four years, Ali and her AIC students helped to rebuild and strengthen the baccalaureate nursing program in Port-au-Prince. “While we were there, we forged relationships with the nursing students,” she says. “It was a fledgling nursing school working to gain accreditation, so we worked on curriculum, teaching, and facilitating cultural exchange between American and Haitian nursing students. We brought with us about two sets of nursing textbooks and my students taught some of the fundamentals of nursing.
“My students held a joint clinic with the students there where we had youngsters come in and all the students would take their vital signs. It was a contribution that would build a health history on those children.
Ayesha Ali, PhD, MS, RN
“The interesting thing about these trips is that my students had never seen abject poverty, and it was a profoundly emotional experience for them. There was not a student who was not impacted.”
Ali’s service closer to home includes working with the Western Massachusetts Black Nurses Association, an organization she helped found in 1994. She served as president for two consecutive terms and, from 1998 to 2003, developed and coordinated all of its conferences on topics ranging from Violence Across the Lifespan—Prevention Interventions to Health Promotion in Communities of Color. “I love the work I do with the Western Massachusetts Black Nurses Association,” she says. “We survey the community to find out the most important things they want to learn about, and last year we had a lunch where we talked about mental health. It was a very powerful conference, and every single person on the panel I moderated had so much to offer, the entire audience was engaged. Getting information out to people has been a real highlight.”
She has served as an advisory board member and financial secretary for the Western Massachusetts Coalition on Occupational Health and Safety and in various positions on the executive board for the Caring Health Center (CHC) in Springfield. In addition to serving 21,000 patients per year, the CHC also operates a pharmacy, the Springfield South WIC Nutrition Program, and is the largest Refugee Health Assessment provider in the state.
Ali is a member of the National Black Nurses Association, the American Public Health Association (Public Health Nursing, Black Caucus of Health Workers), and was inducted into Sigma Theta Tau International Nursing Honor Society in 1992. She was the recipient of the 2019 African American Female Professor Award.
As an academic, Ali’s master’s thesis explored social support in African American populations, and she has presented the findings of her doctoral dissertation, Relational Cultural Perspectives of African American Women with Diabetes and Maintaining Multiple Roles, at Beta Zeta (a local chapter of Sigma Theta Tau) Scholarship Day. She earned her PhD in nursing from the University of Massachusetts in 2017 and considers it one of the most exciting experiences of her life. “I had worked long and hard for it, and the entire graduation day was one of celebration,” she says. “However, there have been many exciting times in my life. Whenever a member of my family receives an honor or achieves a goal, it’s exciting and preempts the previous ‘most exciting time.’ I am so proud of my husband, children, and grandchildren, particularly.”
On that front, Ali has much to be proud of. The mother of three (two sons and a daughter), she now has thirteen grandchildren ranging in age from three to twenty-five. “My daughter and my sons are just great parents,” she says, “and my husband and I are the indulgent grandparents.”
Ali’s husband, Dr. Kamal Ali, is a retired administrator and associate professor emeritus of ethnic and gender studies at Westfield State University (WSU). He has a scholarship in his name as testimony to his inspiring legacy as former director of the Urban Education and Student Support Services programs, and later as associate dean of Multicultural Development, professor emeritus of the Department of Ethnic and Gender Studies, and faculty advisor to the Muslim Student Organization at WSU.
Ali and her husband are orthodox Islam, and that deep well of spirituality informs all of their work in the world. When Ali, who has been teaching full-time at AIC since 1991, considers her role at the College, she says: “I love working with the diverse students in the nursing program. I may be a little biased, however, to know that our program is contributing to an honored profession by having the profession reflect the entire population. This is extremely important to me.”
Another thing that is extremely important to this scholar, nurse, and educator is something she has had to learn how to value: self-care. “Working hard requires one to rest and relax just as hard,” she says. “You need to care for yourself so you are available and around for your loved ones.”
One of the ways Ali tends to her personal restoration is by reading. “I have always loved reading and enjoy many different kinds of books,” she says. “I just finished a book by Octavia Butler, Kindred, that my daughter and I got into at the same time. I also enjoy watching old black-and-white movies, cooking, and just relaxing with my family.”
Family has always been a source of joy, strength, and inspiration for Ali. One of her earliest influences shaped how her life has unfolded and who she is today. “I identified with nursing when I was very young,” she explains. “My mom, who was the best person in the world, always wanted to be a nurse but, for a variety of reasons, she became a CNA (certified nursing assistant) instead, and we were so proud of her. When I decided to go to nursing school, she was absolutely thrilled. She was living through me in that way.”
One could say Dr. Ayesha Ali is a living legacy of love and service, and she is passing those values along to the next generation of nurses through every life she touches, and every student she teaches at AIC.
By Ellen Dooley