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Meet the Power of We Scholars: Nesma Abdelnabi

We recently announced the 2021 recipients of the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding students working to promote equity in the health care field.

This story is part of a series profiling each of this year’s six winners.

Looking at Nesma Abdelnabi’s family, it’s not surprising that she chose a career in health care. Several of her uncles are pharmacists, and her older sister is studying to become one. But the real reason Nesma is dedicating her life to health care is her brother. 

“My brother has autism, and I grew up going to his doctors’ appointments,” says Nesma. “I learned so much watching his health care team and going with him to occupational, speech or behavioral therapy. I saw how many people were involved in his care, and how many truly made a difference — whether it was a good or bad difference. I knew I wanted to help kids like him.”

“They are an underserved minority, especially here in Knoxville where we don’t have as many resources when it comes to caring for people with special needs.”

As a Certified Nursing Assistant at UT Medical Center, Nesma is already on the front lines. She’s worked in the progressive care and cardiothoracic surgery units, even before she’s officially begun her final year of nursing school. It’s a huge accomplishment, and one that holds special significance for Nesma and her family. 

Finding her motivation

Nesma Abdelnabi

“My parents immigrated from Palestine, so I’m a first-generation American and a first-generation college student,” she says. “I’m very proud of my Palestinian heritage, and to be Arab and Muslim. Living in a small Southern city where there’s not as much diversity motivates me to stay close to my roots — not just so I can stand out, but so I can stick to what I believe in.”

One thing Nesma believes in is giving neurodivergent patients the exact same level of care everyone else gets. Through nursing, she’s in a unique position to deliver that care directly to patients. 

As a nurse, you’re not just caring for the patient; You’re also caring for their family ,” she says. “You’re taking care of their mental, emotional and social health, and you’re with them every day, more than any doctor can be.”

For Nesma, that personal connection is even stronger when she’s caring for children.

“Children are so flexible in so many ways, mentally and emotionally,” she says. “It’s fascinating to see their development firsthand — how a child learns and grows, and how resilient they are in the face of intense challenges that even adults have trouble dealing with.” 

Nesma’s life hasn’t been without challenges of its own. Her father has been incarcerated since 2016, and Nesma’s family counts on her for both emotional and financial support.

She often works a 12-hour day at the hospital and then eight hours as a pharmacy tech so she can send money home to help with mortgage payments and other bills.

It’s a grueling schedule, but there’s nothing that matters more to Nesma than family.  

“My mother is the strongest woman I’ve ever known,” she says. “She has done such a wonderful job being a mother and father to me and my three siblings. Every day, she motivates me to work hard and to break the stereotypes about children of incarcerated parents being destined to fail. I cherish my family. They are why I’m here.”

Looking toward the future

Once Nesma becomes a registered nurse, she plans to continue on to graduate school. But right now, she’s grateful to be exactly where she is. 

“I believe in starting from the bottom,” she says. “Most successful people aren’t the ones who start at the top. I want to take all the necessary steps to grow into the nurse I want to be. 

Walking that path hasn’t been easy. Nesma works 40 to 50 hours a week and goes to school full time, all while trying to keep her scholarships, pay for books and fees, and get to clinical sites an hour or two away. She’s the first to admit she could use some help, and now she’s going to get it from the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship. 

“Going into my senior year, there were a lot of things dragging me down,” she says. “It’s hard to be fully engaged in your studies when you’re worried about keeping the lights on at home. This scholarship will take so much weight off my shoulders. I can be less stressed about my finances and more focused on getting to the finish line — to that cap and gown. I can’t wait to walk across that stage, for me and my family.” 

Heading into the home stretch, Nesma is thrilled to be able to take the time to be present as she approaches the next phase of her life.  

“Working in the health care field this past year taught me that time is precious,” she says. “You don’t know when life is going to end. I’m so thankful for my family, and I’m more motivated than ever to give my brothers and my mom a better life because they deserve so much.” 

About the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship

  • Each year, the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation awards $10,000 scholarships to minority students pursuing degrees in health care.
  • Recipients are chosen in collaboration with the National Association of Health Services Executives (NAHSE) – Memphis Chapter.
  • The goal of these scholarships is to help reduce health disparities by improving diversity in the state’s health care workforce and combating systemic racism and injustice.
  • Since 2013, the foundation has awarded $285,000 to students leading the charge.
  • This year, the BlueCross Foundation awarded 6 scholarships to students across the state.

For more information, see

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