As I nervously wait for her to join the Zoom, Barbara Chrem’s (N ‘22) wide smile comes into view and eases all tension. A screen doesn’t do her energy justice. She’s immediately interested in how I’m doing amid a seemingly endless final exam season. Barbara grimaces as I give her a strained smile—she’s been there. Luckily, senior year is almost over, and she’s coasting along to graduation. Our introductory interaction highlights an indisputable fact about Barbara: First and foremost, she’s a people person.
Barbara’s a force to be reckoned with. From nursing to a cappella, she does it all with contagious enthusiasm. If you catch her between classes, chances are she’s on the phone with her parents, whom she “calls every day.” In the evenings, she’s likely having a home–cooked, Syrian and Egyptian–influenced dinner with her roommates. Wherever she goes, one is sure to find a strong community waiting around the corner.
Barbara learned how to build community at home. She grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey in a close–knit Syrian–Jewish community. Faith and culture kept them well connected and deeply supportive.
From a young age, her parents tried to foster excellence. Nothing was out of her reach. In fact, they made an early effort to demystify the idea of untenable prestigious colleges. Smiling, Barbara proudly says, “My family was extremely supportive, and my parents actually started taking college road trips when I was a sophomore or a junior in high school. My uncle … and sister even came for some trips. Everyone was very into finding me the best place.”
Although Barbara applied to Penn, her “dream school,” she was rejected. Instead, she went to Hunter College, a public university in New York. Since she commuted to Hunter, it was “difficult to be involved with school life and the student body.” Most would shy away from this detail in their grand narrative, preferring to ignore the disappointment of a rocky start. Instead, Barbara freely admits, “I ended up applying [to] transfer after my first year in Hunter. [Penn] was the only school that I applied to transfer to.”
Even though Barbara’s family wasn’t constantly around at Penn like they were at Hunter, traces of their influence are prevalent in everything she does—especially her major. Barbara has always had a deep fascination with genetics and its influence on health. She’s seen firsthand how genetics can irrevocably alter someone’s life. Barbara’s eyes shift downward as if lost in painful memories. “My grandmother tested negative, but many of her siblings have the BRCA2 gene. Unfortunately, a lot of them got cancer and at a young age, too.”
Initially, she wanted to dive full force into genetic engineering and lab research. “I did a summer genetic engineering program at Cooper Union [a private college in New York] going into my junior year, and I really liked it. But I realized I kind of needed more of that interpersonal interaction.”
Specializing as a pediatric oncology nurse offers the perfect opportunity to “do her part” and connect with others in a meaningful and personal way. “I know that I might not be able to change the outcome. But I can change a person's experience. And just to add a little bit of hope and positivity along that journey makes a really big difference.”
Barbara easily brings forth enough energy and enthusiasm to last through a long day's work at the hospital, but she’s careful to not over–exert herself. Deep talks with current nurses have revealed a host of salient tips and tricks. Surprisingly, she reveals that many nurses say the first thing a new nurse should do is to “get a therapist.” Burnout is real and rampant.
A nurse is constantly exposed to life’s triumphs and tragedies. On her first clinical rotation, Barbara was thrown into the obstetrics unit—think nervous moms, screaming babies, and terrified new dads. Barbara grins, mentioning, “I got to do the footprints for a baby girl.”
But for every cute moment, there’s a stark, unforgettable experience on the horizon—and it refuses to wait. Barbara is no stranger to end–of–life care. She’s visited the bedside of several family members as their time comes to an end. Even so, taking care of the sick doesn’t get easier.
One of the most jarring moments from Barbara’s clinicals was helping another nurse transport a sick male patient around 11 or 12 years old through a “long, bland underground tunnel system.”
“His upper extremities were emaciated and lower extremities were edematous. … The patient was at the end of life.” The emotion is palpable in her voice, but she doesn’t falter. “They were getting radiation as palliative care but they were in a lot of pain. … It was really rough for the patient.”
In moments like that, you want to help, but “at a certain point, it’s out of your control.” You do what you can and try to keep going as best as you can. Every nurse needs an outlet, somewhere they can process their emotions. Some nurses vent to a therapist, others find simpler ways to vent—including exercise, music, art, and anything else that preoccupies the mind for a little bit of time.
Barbara loves to express herself through art and music. Some things don’t have to be shared with others for money or notoriety. In the swirls of paint and dab of a brush, Barbara finds quiet. “It’s a good emotion and stress relief. It allows me to lose myself so I won’t be thinking about a million things.”
Music brings the same quiet. She loves to take some time to mess around on the keyboard and play with lyrics, although she’s “not very good at it.” It’s difficult to tell if she’s being humble or is genuinely underestimating her ability. Her clear tone and strong belt tempered by just enough vibrato are good—really good.
Luckily, if you buy a ticket in time, you can see Barbara perform with Dischord, a co–ed a cappella group on campus. In Dischord, Barbara loses some of her shyness—if only for those three to four sacred minutes of peace—and explores her craft with her community cheering her on. “[Singing] “Love On The Brain” with Dischord was really fun. It pushed me because I usually sing more mellow, soft songs, not so much with attitude or edge.” Undoubtedly, Barbara’s sweet soprano voice and the thunderous background vocals of the rest of Dischord were a sight to behold.
But magical moments like that performance can’t come without hours of dedication. Music theory is surprisingly difficult despite many of us listening to music on a daily basis. “It took me a bit longer than some other [Dischord] members. I definitely have to put in more time outside of practice.”
Eventually, after hours of practice, a magical moment happens when everything clicks. “It's an incredible thing to see that I'm more comfortable reading sheet music and learning music theory.”
Although it’s difficult, Barbara still does it because she “loves it.” Throughout her college experience, Barbara has been motivated by this ethos.
It’s rare that the things you love are easy. Nursing is certainly not for the faint of heart. Music and art take hours of practice and dedication. But difficulty is no excuse to avoid trying.
At the end of our conversation, Barbara, bubbly as ever, insists, “As long as you find the balance and give yourself a break, pursue what you love.”