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‘It was meant to be:’ Through nursing, Thaw Htoo sees a way to support Rochester refugees

  By Gianluca D'Elia
  Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Thaw Htoo '23N stands outside the Children's School wearing his white School of Nursing scrubs.

Thaw Htoo ’23N felt emotional when he visited the Children’s School of Rochester No. 15 early in the fall semester for the community health rotation of his clinical experience.

By a total coincidence, he’d been placed at his own elementary school. It holds a special place in his heart: Htoo came to the Children’s School in 2008 as a refugee, having spent the first 11 years of his life at a camp on the border of Myanmar and Thailand.

After leaving Myanmar with his parents for an unknown future, Htoo recalled the Children’s School feeling like a safe haven. The school, a longtime partner of the University of Rochester School of Nursing, is known for its robust refugee community and English-language learning support. Its student population represents nearly 40 countries and languages.

Years later, as an adult, Htoo joined two of his colleagues from the accelerated bachelor’s program, Nate Schacher and Delilah Quinones, to spend a Wednesday morning delivering a presentation on healthy communication for sixth-graders, leading activities such as “emotion charades” and a question game with a multi-color beach ball focused on listening skills.

It was a perfect opportunity to give back to the community that once helped him find a sense of belonging in a brand new country.

“It was really hard, because I remember when I first came to the United States, I did not know any English, but I was able to learn and catch up with the English there,” he recalled. “It was through hard work, dedication, and support that I got through the program.”

Nursing students have been working with the Children’s School as part of their community health clinical experiences since 2010. The relationship started when Assistant Professor Leann Patel, MSN, RN, and sixth-grade teacher Telesta Rice collaborated to create a program that helps refugee parents understand American health care systems. Eventually, the pair also noticed a need to expand the health education curriculum for students, and Patel pitched a program in which nursing students could fill the gap by teaching kids about topics such as hygiene, nutrition, and disease prevention.

Spending time in the community, in settings such as schools, senior living facilities, and prisons, helps nursing students see the day-to-day lives of the people they’ll soon be caring for, Patel said. Experiences like that of Htoo and his colleagues at the Children’s School exemplify her vision for community health clinicals brought to life.

“My hope was that by doing this, students could work with people directly where they are,” Patel said. “I’ve always hoped that it would be a real-life experience, where students have an opportunity to see how social determinants of health impact patients’ lives.”


Visits from the School of Nursing offer a window into what opportunities might be available to Children’s School students in the future, said Principal Jay Piper.

“The nursing students are the vision we want for our students,” he said.
Piper had vivid memories of Htoo as a student, and held onto a copy of Htoo’s 2011 class photo to show him when he visited.

A fast learner, Htoo grasped the English language quickly, and wasted no time utilizing his new language skills to help others. He translated for parents and other new students from Myanmar’s Karen community, volunteered to help younger students onto their buses at dismissal, and became one of the school’s “fuss busters” — an older student who helps the younger ones work through problems and conflicts.

“He was a real leader who would embrace the younger kids and take them under his wing,” Piper said. “Looking back now, it makes sense to me that he would take the path of nursing. He’s so nurturing. It’s a great honor to see him follow that path. It was meant to be.”

Htoo would agree — but it took a while for him to realize nursing was his calling.

“I had always wanted to work in the health field, but I didn't know what I wanted to do,” said Htoo, who earned his first bachelor’s degree in biology from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
He worked in labs and pharmacies, and spent the past three years working as a hair transplant technician at the nearby Quatela Center for Plastic Surgery. He felt a craving to do more, and remembered wishing he could perform injections like the nurses and physicians he worked with. Htoo began to realize that nursing would offer him a way to make a meaningful impact.

Htoo discovered interests in nephrology and pediatric nursing during his time at the University Rochester, but his overall goal, however, is to pay it forward.

“I wanted to go to nursing school to see what more I could do,” he said. “We have a lot of refugee communities, and I really want to go back and hopefully work with members of those communities.”

The City of Rochester has been helping refugees resettle since the 1980s. In the past two decades, the city has welcomed more than 8,000 refugees, including almost 1,500 from Htoo’s home country.

Leading by his gentle, humble example, Htoo wants to show what is possible for those who resettle in Rochester.

“Even though you might not know the language, or you're introduced to a new culture, once you are adapted to the culture, the beliefs, and everyday living, you'll be able to learn so many new things,” he said. “If you put in the hard work, you'll be able to move forward.”

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