In December 2015, Nicole Geller, a nurse-midwife with over two decades of clinical and teaching experience, was the 275th (and very last) person to apply to the Global Health Service Partnership for placement in 2016-2017. Now Geller is looking forward to being one of the very first GHSP Volunteers deployed to Liberia.
“I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am for this opportunity to teach in Liberia,” Geller said. “I appreciate every part of the opportunity – that it is so well organized, that it is structured, that I am given some lead time to prepare, and that I am going to be put right in the center of what needs to be done.”
Geller traces her path to GHSP and Liberia all the way back to her childhood. Growing up as “a minority in a minority” on the island nation of Curacao, she recalls, “it was impressed upon us as children that we had a responsibility to our community – that we had to do good for the sake of good.” She also recalls being fascinated by public service ads touting the Peace Corps as “the toughest job you’ll ever love” that she saw when she visited the US. “I was a child so I wondered, ‘how could you love something that is tough.’”
Geller’s interest in nursing and midwifery also took root during her childhood in Curacao, sparked by “exceptional role models for what is a nurse in a developing country.”
She remembers being particularly impressed by the nurses who came through her parents’ store. “These were professional women, and that is where I got the idea that I was going to be a professional woman. They would always come in uniform and they had such great pride in who they were and what they did. So in essence, I think they recruited me.”
Then a friend suggested that she look into midwifery. “As a teenager, I worked with midwives and nurses in a birth clinic. I was hooked after the first birth – just a lot of people cheering on the woman, and the woman doing something that I thought was quite miraculous, and still do at this time. I think my fate was sealed when I was 14 or 15 years old.”
Over the years that followed, that fate took Geller to four degrees in nursing and nursing science (a bachelor’s, two masters and a PhD); to nursing and preceptor jobs at hospitals in and around Washington, DC, California, and New York City; and to teaching positions at several major universities and teaching hospitals. Her experiences, both on hospital wards and in classrooms, whetted the interest she had had since childhood in serving those most in need both in the US and around the world.
“My first job out of nursing school was in a clinic for indigent women,” Geller said. “That’s where I fell in love with the women of sub-Saharan Africa. Many [African] countries were having political issues that caused emigration, and a large population of their women came to the DC metro area where I was working. I worked in an Ob-gyn clinic providing full-scope maternity care and all of their maternal and child health with these patients.”
Geller’s training and experience as a teacher further expanded both her skills and her determination to put them to work “doing good for the sake of doing something good.”
“If you’ve been raised with the idea that you’re to make a contribution, then what do you do?” she asked. “For years, I tried every avenue, I tried all kinds of geography changes, different ways of practice, a research job where I worked with the nurses. And I ended up going back – yep, one more time – for a PhD at Columbia.”
It was after finishing her PhD that Geller’s commitment to being of true service intersected with her childhood fascination with the Peace Corps promise of “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” She had previously taken her skills and her commitment to service overseas for relatively short stints as a volunteer in Ethiopia and a nurse consultant at a maternity clinic in Colombia.
“Once I finished the PhD, I was struggling with the idea of what do you do with all of your accomplishments, your blessings, all the skills you acquire. The only program I could find that made sense for me was this program through Seed. It’s a structured opportunity. It puts me where they need me most. It will allow me to use just about all of my skills I’ve acquired. And I will be able to see the impact of my life work and of everything that I’ve worked so hard for benefit a community. So that is how I ended up at this point.”
Geller’s decision was made even easier by the availability of support from Seed to help repay her student loans. “If I did not get the student loan payback option, I would still choose to serve,” she said. “But this makes it 100 percent possible and extremely easy for someone like me, with years of experience and expertise and a whole life in the US. That’s what makes it really easy for me to go.”
She knows that it won’t all be easy, that some things will be hard, like “missing out on a year of my nephew’s life, and missing my family and friends.” But overall she is looking forward eagerly to a year of both teaching and learning.
“I’m excited as an educator to stretch my muscles,” she said, “to not teach my way but the way that can work better and achieve other people’s goals. And as a clinician, I am curious about how strong my acumen is after years away from low-resource care. I’m accustomed to all this equipment – how will I do when I don’t have it. So I’m looking forward to the opportunity of becoming a better teacher, a better clinician, and a better person.”