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Before Meleis made her move to Penn, the world-renowned medical sociologist was rounding 34 years at the University of California at San Francisco. There she’d done various administrative stints—including chairing the status-for-women committee and acting as assistant dean for academic programs—on top of teaching and mentoring hundreds of students and conducting influential research on women’s health. Back then, she was happy to have her administrative roles behind her and to embark on a phase of research and scholarship—specifically a study with 10 colleagues around the world on why doctors and nurses routinely miss symptoms of heart conditions in women.

“I was not going to be a dean again,” she recalls from behind her desk in her very purple office in Fagin Hall. “I said, ‘I will never leave San Francisco. I will never leave UCSF.’” But she came to Philadelphia and she fell in love with the University, the School of Nursing, and the city.

Meleis has never been afraid of change, possibly because of the inspiration offered by her mother, whom she saw make a very major one when Meleis was only 11. That’s when the World Health Organization offered her mother, a nurse and educator in Alexandria, Egypt, a scholarship to Syracuse University. New York state was a long way from Alexandria and Afaf’s younger sister was only two years old at the time. “No one thought that she would leave her family and go,” says Meleis, who remembers watching her mother cry as she departed for Syracuse. “But she did, because it was really important for her to develop the nursing-education system in Egypt.” When she returned, Meleis’ mother established a master’s degree program in nursing at the University of Alexandria and a program at the University of Cairo for nurses to earn their PhDs in education. She was also the first Egyptian nurse to obtain that degree. Even as a child, seeing what her mother was willing to sacrifice to advance nursing in her country, Meleis recalls, “I thought, ‘This must be a fantastic profession.’”

To be fearless in support of your passion wasn’t the only lesson Meleis learned at a tender age. When she finished high school at age 15 and was told she couldn’t enter Alexandria University because the minimum age was 16, she pleaded with the school’s chancellor. Even at 15, she was persuasive. A few days after their meeting, she learned that the chancellor had decided to let her matriculate since her age, according to the Arabic calendar, was 16. She offers this as an early lesson in the importance of creative problem-solving.

Meleis tested those skills again after she came to UCLA in 1962 on a Rockefeller scholarship to earn a master’s of science in nursing and decided to stay on to pursue a master’s in sociology and a PhD in medical and social psychology. (Advanced degrees in nursing science didn’t exist then.) She was engaged to Mahmoud Meleis, a nuclear engineer who was still in Alexandria, and the government, intent on retaining the country’s brightest youth, wouldn’t let him leave. It had been two years since the couple had seen one another. One night, in total frustration, Afaf sat down and wrote a long letter to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Then she forgot about it. She didn’t tell Mahmoud. One day he was called into his boss’s office and handed a letter that looked like it was written by his fiancée. It was Afaf’s letter, with a signed note from Nasser, who had written, “Could you please take care of this and let him out of the country?” Soon after, Mahmoud joined her in California.

After she and her husband both completed their PhDs at UCLA, she began her long career at UCSF. In addition to finding her niche there as a scholar and scientist focusing on global women’s health, she honed her leadership skills.

Dr. Sandra Weiss, now a professor at UCSF’s nursing school and then a doctoral student, remembers meeting the young assistant dean back in 1972. She recalls first being struck by “this gorgeous woman,” she says, “dressed to the hilt in a miniskirt and boots,” who walked into her doctoral seminar with UCSF’s chancellor in tow. “It was so typical of Afaf,” says Weiss. “She wanted him to meet some doctoral students. She thought the most important people at UCSF were the students.” She was always questioning authority, always questioning the university president in her role as a leader of the academic senate, Weiss recalls. “She has done that throughout her life,” she says. “For students, for faculty, for immigrants, for vulnerable populations. She has always been there making sure everyone has a voice.”

At UCSF, Meleis found herself at the center of a dispute about the boundaries of establishing advanced degrees in nursing science. In the United States, nursing education has historically focused on clinical training and hands-on apprenticeship. This began to change during her early days in California. In 1965 UCSF became the first U.S. school to offer a doctor of nursing-science degree, and in 1984 its Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing was one of the country’s inaugural three PhD programs in the field.

“When we went from having a doctor of nursing-science program to a PhD program,” says Weiss, “I remember there was a lot of questioning from other disciplines—do we really need a nursing PhD? I remember Afaf talking with physiologists and physicians about the basis of the science in nursing. She’s been a force throughout the country as doctoral programs in nursing became established.”

The Energizer Dean By Caroline Tiger

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