Karmen Harris, Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
Proud four-time Pirate works to expand roles of nurses
Name: Karmen Sokolosky Harris
Major: Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
Classification/Year: Graduate student
Hometown: Beaufort, NC
Hobbies/interests: Drinking coffee
Clubs and Organizations: Beta Nu Chapter of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing & ECU Chapter – The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi
Favorite hangouts: The pool at The Landing (2006-2009)
Favorite places on campus: Central Campus
Favorite places to eat: Pita Pit (2005-2009)
Favorite classes: Crime Scene Investigation or Forensic Impressions and Markings
Professor who influenced you the most: Dennis Honeycutt (ECU Department of Criminal Justice)
Dream job: If I wasn’t a forensic nurse, I would love to have my own bakery!
Role model: My mentor, Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess
Your words to live by: Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
What advice do you have for other students? Don’t be in a hurry! These years will go by in a flash and before you know it, you’ll be in your car jamming to music from the early 2000s and your child will wonder what planet you’re from.
What is something cool about ECU that you wish you knew during your first year? Joyner Library had the best coffee on campus – Port City Java! (2005-2009)
Karmen Harris moved around a lot as the daughter of a soldier – Kentucky, Maryland, Hawaii, Georgia, Kansas and North Carolina before settling in Beaufort, where her parent’s family is from and where she graduated from high school in 2005.
Her path to college was much less circuitous – just a short 90 miles up coastal back roads to East Carolina University, where her brother was enrolled, and her father and aunt had graduated a generation before.
Now Harris is set to become a three-time ECU alumna as she prepares to graduate Dec. 15 with a master’s degree in nursing, building on a career of helping others.
At ECU, Harris worked toward an anthropology degree with a minor in forensic science and an advanced certificate in forensic anthropology, but realized after graduation that there are “about three full-time forensic anthropologists in the nation” and decided to go back to school, this time at Carteret Community College to be a nurse, with a plan to combine her investigative education with her newly acquired medical training.
In 2014 and 2015, she worked with people dealing with substance use disorders in Wilmington before accepting a position at then-Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center, where she was trained as a sexual assault medical forensic examiner.
“As a board-certified SANE-A, I am specially trained to provide care to adult and adolescent survivors of sexual violence,” Harris said.
She went on to work as a client advocate and sexual assault and outreach coordinator for a nonprofit agency, which offered support to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking — before plunging into even more emotionally turbulent waters — an appointment as a North Carolina medical examiner in 2019.
Harris said North Carolina expanded licensure eligibility for appointed medical examiners to include registered nurses due to the need for an increased workforce to conduct death investigations across the state, but especially in rural areas. The work was always challenging, and sometimes unbearable when crimes involved children, Harris said, but each case redoubled her resolve to be an advocate for those who can’t speak for themselves.
“It’s given me such a unique perspective, a retrospective lens on how to care for the living,” Harris said.
Until 2022, she worked as the central region trainer for the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where she was responsible for a third of North Carolina’s counties and training newly appointed local medical examiners.
In 2020 Harris returned to the College of Nursing to complete a bachelor of science in nursing degree and soon decided that she wanted to help find new paths for nurses in the world of mental health care, especially for victims of violence, but she needed more education to build upon her already impressive credentials.
Gayle Levinson, a fellow Pirate Nurse who works in the mental health facility at Central Prison in Raleigh, took Harris on as ECU’s first psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner student to complete her clinical training working with offenders at the maximum security prison.
“The experience was so profound. They valued their time with us, and we were able to be so intentional — there weren’t the time constraints we usually have with patients outside of prison,” Harris said. “When I talked to them about their childhood, entering adulthood, and the choices made or the circumstances they encountered, I could see how things just kind of snowballed. But if there were better approaches or better access to care, who knows what the outcomes could have been?”
After graduation, Harris wants to help others discover those possible outcomes, the ones where North Carolinians aren’t victims of violence or spiral into lifetimes of mental health challenges and legal trouble. She hopes to follow in the footsteps of one of her mentors, Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess, a world-renowned psychiatric forensic nurse whose groundbreaking work with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit paved the way for profiling some of the most notorious criminals.
Harris said she wants to chart a new forensic nursing pathway for advanced practice nurses, where nurses can explore roles of the forensic nurse, victimology, deviant behaviors, psychopathy and behavioral analysis from a nursing perspective, which might benefit survivors and help prevent potential criminal behavior from happening in the first place.
To do that, she’ll need further education, but that path is already set. In August she’ll begin a doctor of nursing practice program at – where else – ECU’s College of Nursing.
“This has always been my home. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”
FALL 2023 GRADUATE PROFILES