Education and Nursing Students Bond in Women’s Running Group

UMass Lowell Ph.D. students Pamela Fallon in nursing and Sharifa Djurabaeva in education Image by Courtesy
Ph.D. students Pamela Fallon and Sharifa Djurabaeva became friends through a women's running group in North Andover.

By Katharine Webster

Last spring, after COVID-19 shut down the campus, education Ph.D. student Sharifa Djurabaeva was feeling isolated. She had finished all of her classes and was starting the long, hard solo work of completing her dissertation.

“I was getting so frustrated just sitting in one room,” she says. “I also wanted to socialize.”

She moved from Lowell to North Andover, Massachusetts, in June. She runs to stay fit, and she wanted to meet people safely outdoors, so she went online to look for running groups. She found the local chapter of 261 Fearless, a network of running groups for women of any ability, named for the bib number of the first woman to officially run in the Boston Marathon: Kathrine Switzer, in 1967.

Djurabaeva felt welcomed from the first Friday she showed up at the North Andover Common to run – especially by Pamela Fallon, a Ph.D. student in the Solomont School of Nursing. Fallon says she was beyond surprised when Djurabaeva introduced herself to the group.

“Finding another Ph.D. student at the same university who also liked running at 6 a.m. was like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack,” she says. “It was a ‘Wow!’ moment.”

Fallon, who competes in races but mostly runs to stay healthy, had joined 261 Fearless in January 2020 because she liked its mission of connecting women from all walks of life: moms, working women and students.

Fallon is all three. She’s a nurse practitioner working in employee wellness at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, a Ph.D. student focusing on health promotion, and mother of three girls.

She and Djurabaeva quickly bonded, and soon they were running together much of the time. When they discovered they ran at roughly the same pace, they added a Wednesday morning run, just the two of them.

“Sharifa says she’s not a good runner, but she’s really a very good runner,” Fallon says. “We’re doing well for this time, during COVID, just to get out there and keep moving.”

UMass Lowell Ph.D. students Pam Fallon and Sharifa Djurabaeva run at 6 a.m. with 261 Fearless Image by Courtesy
Fallon and Djurabaeva talk about research and teaching while running twice a week.

Fallon says that during their runs, Djurabaeva told her about how the break-up of the Soviet Union affected her and her country, and how she ended up coming to the United States for two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. Djurabaeva is doing her dissertation on changes in teaching in Uzbekistan as it transitioned from socialism to a free market economy.

“She’s a wonderful storyteller,” Fallon says. “The miles go by, and I’ve had a history lesson and a cultural lesson.”

Djurabaeva says Fallon, who grew up in the area, seems to know everyone they run into early in the morning – including Fallon’s husband, who runs with different people. And on Wednesday, she gets to explore new areas as they run, with Fallon as her guide.

“I’m fascinated by the nature around here that I haven’t seen,” she says. “Because I’d been busy with my classes and living in Lowell, I hadn’t been able to get out of the university zone. Once I got out, I felt the area was extremely beautiful. There are a lot of trees and trails around here.”

Both say it’s really helpful to talk to each other about their teaching and research, especially as both are now fifth-year students working on their dissertations.

Fallon is working with Asst. Prof. and Associate Chair of Nursing Mazen El Ghaziri on a project aimed at promoting better working conditions for correctional officers, with a focus on peer support. Djurabaeva is doing qualitative research, advised by Education Prof. A.J. Angulo, on teaching conditions in Uzbekistan.

“It’s hard to find someone who understands the hours of research and writing it takes to complete a Ph.D.,” Fallon says. “We have also talked about how to engage students, especially when teaching through Zoom.”

Djurabaeva is teaching a course to undergraduates and master’s students on educating multilingual students, while Fallon is an adjunct instructor, teaching health assessment to sophomore nursing students.

Fallon says that they talk to other people on their Friday runs, too, and always try to welcome new runners.

“That’s where the socialization comes in,” she says. “That’s where you meet other people. That’s the heart of why I keep coming back.”

Djurabaeva, who previously earned master’s degrees at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and Ball State University in Indiana, says the group has helped her feel like part of a community. She’s encouraging a couple of other international graduate students to join 261 Fearless.

“People are local here, and I’ve been missing that, because most of the time I’ve been in places where people come and go,” she says. “It feels like home here: People know people here.”

Because of the pandemic, the women haven’t met aside from their running dates and a couple of outdoor club events, although they hope to, once the weather warms up.

In the meantime, they’ll keep showing up for the group, for themselves – and for each other.

“Having that time and knowing that Sharifa is going to be there gets me up at 5 a.m. so I can have a cup of coffee before running,” Fallon says. “I feel committed to her.”