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DNP Student Demonstrates Spirit of Helping Others

Zehra Kanji
For nurses and students looking for inspiration to do more, look no further than Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) student Zehra Kanji who works full-time, goes to school full-time, teaches as an adjunct instructor, and somehow still manages to be an active volunteer in her community. “I try to keep a balance,” says Kanji. “It’s hard, but I love every aspect of it. I’m one of those people that loves waking up in the morning.”

Kanji, who previously graduated from the MENP program in 2013 and has since returned as a DNP student, traces her desire to help others back to her mother, who worked as a midwife in Pakistan before the family immigrated to America when Zehra was five years old. Now Kanji works as an OB nurse at Presence St. Francis Hospital.

Crediting her internship with helping to secure her job at St. Francis, Kanji recalls fondly now the struggle of having an internship on nights and classes during the day. “It turned out to be an amazing experience, and that’s one of the reasons why I chose DePaul—I wanted to help the marginalized and be in one of those community hospitals.” Kanji, who already had a bachelor’s degree, had applied to two master’s entry programs before making her decision. “I figured DePaul would have more connections to the community.”

Kanji practices Islam in the Isma’ili tradition, and emphasizes helping the community in her understanding of her faith. While serving as a board member on the Aga Khan Health Board for the past three years, Kanji helped to program health fairs, bring in medical professionals for consultations, and organize healthy eating programs. Now Kanji serves as the nursing lead for the Midwest, where she focuses on helping the nurses in her community to advance their careers and earn CEUs. Kanji also organizes team-building activities at St. Francis, bringing nurses and doctors together for paint nights, bowling, and even 5k runs. “It builds a personal relationship between doctors and nurses,” says Kanji. “I feel like that is really important on a unit like Labor and Delivery, where it can either be very happy or very stressful.”

It can be hard to understand where she finds the time, but Kanji has always been motivated and goal-oriented. By her sophomore year of undergrad, she was already studying for the MCATs and shadowing at Lake Forest Hospital. When Kanji realized that she would prefer the holistic route of nursing to medical school, she put herself on the fastest path to get there. Kanji graduated from UIC in three and a half years with a degree in biology and minors in chemistry and psychology. She fulfilled her prerequisites at a community college and was attending DePaul for her master’s by the fall. After graduating and landing a job, Kanji became a charge nurse within one year. Her next focus was on attaining her RNC (Registered Nurse, Certified). “As soon as the two-year mark hit, I got certified,” says Kanji, matter-of-factly. “Now it’s time for the next step—my DNP.”

Kanji’s steady march forward is in service of her ultimate goal: to go overseas and do prenatal care in a developing country. Although Kanji has not yet started her research coursework for the DNP, she is hoping to work with Aga Khan University Hospital in Pakistan. “It’s a really developed hospital back home. However, certain things I hear about it, I want to know why they do what they do. I want to compare and improve prenatal care in the developing world.”

This past summer, Kanji visited Pakistan and Singapore, reaching out to colleagues who have done prenatal care or researched access to prenatal care in those areas. Though the goal of her research is clear, Kanji is still working out how to approach it. “Do I want to do two IRBs?” Kanji jokes, referring to the extremely time-consuming process of receiving Institutional Review Board approval to conduct research on a population. Should two IRBs best serve her research goals, there is little doubt that Kanji will submit both.

Recently, Kanji has also begun teaching for DePaul University as a clinical adjunct faculty member, fulfilling another of her long-term goals. “My 301 lab professor saw me working at St. Francis one day, and she approached me and asked if I would be interested in teaching,” describes Kanji. “I had been wanting to teach, but I didn’t know when was the right time or how much experience I needed. I felt like it came to me.” Kanji has taught OB clinicals for three quarters already, and has also begun to precept internship students. 

Education is important to Kanji, who has also been volunteering her time as the interim Clinical Educator at St. Francis for the past seven months. As part of this role, Kanji provides in-service training for nurses at St. Francis, ensuring, for example, that all nurses are trained to meet the standards of the Illinois Hypertension Initiative. Kanji frequently gives refresher courses on topics like IV push slow meds and taking manual blood pressures. After a presentation on OB hemorrhage, she even gave exams to all staff to ensure they were up-to-date. “It’s time consuming, but it’s fun. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love what I do.”

It is little wonder that this past August, Kanji was awarded the Presence St. Francis H.O.P.E. award, given to employees that exemplify the core values of honesty, oneness, people and excellence. This award comes hot on the heels of receiving the St. Francis Family Birth Place Nursing Excellence Award, as well as several competitive scholarships.

Kanji’s advice to her students, who rightly look to her as a role model, is two-fold. First, she says, “No matter what you do, you’re not going to know everything. New grads feel this pressure to know everything within 6-12 weeks, and that’s just not the case. It took me a year and a half to feel comfortable in OB and not anxious every time I walked through the doors.” 

Secondly, Kanji tells her students not to stress about getting a job right away. “I knew I wanted to do OB and I didn’t want to settle for anything else. Helping people at their most vulnerable time is what gives me the motivation to keep going. Go into something that you love.”