Professor Emerita Afaf Meleis, PhD, DrPS(hon), FAAN, LL, has been awarded the 2020 UCSF Medal, the university's highest honor, for her work as a mentor to hundreds of nursing students and faculty around the world, as well as for the development of a nursing theory for assisting patients with healthy transitions.
Meleis grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. Her mother was a nurse and educator who championed nursing schools throughout the Middle East. Meleis studied nursing at the University of Alexandria, and then moved to Los Angeles, where she earned a Master’s and Doctorate in nursing at UCLA.
She then came to UCSF, where she served as professor of nursing for 34 years. Among her accomplishments was establishing a PhD for nursing in 1984, a rarity in education at the time. She also wrote an award-winning book on nursing practice and history. In 2002, she became Dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing. Now, Meleis is Dean Emeritus and a professor of nursing and sociology at Penn, and a professor emeritus at UCSF.
Her legacy stems not only from educating about nursing, but changing the way it’s perceived and practiced.
“The history of nursing has been a history of being oppressed and working and being exploited in the health care system,” she said. “That exploitation helped the health care system, but it was not helpful for the nurses, and it was not helpful for the patients and the clients we provide the care for. I really wanted to make sure that nurses have the same opportunities and the same options, and that it is a valued profession – but it wasn’t only for the sake of nurses, but it’s for the sake of providing quality care.”
Meleis has mentored nurses in Egypt, Sweden, Thailand, Korea, and other countries, with the goal of evolving models of care around the world. “Changing the perception about nursing happens progressively, and incrementally,” she said.
Over her long and continuing career, Meleis’ mission has been to improve conditions for nurses, so they in turn can provide better care.
“Our mission is a social mission,” she said. “Our mission is patient care, and you are a whole human being, a whole human being. We don't think about the diagnosis. We don't think about the symptoms or the science, we think about the lived experience of people.”