Melinda Kassandra Lopez loves to plan. That’s a good thing, considering all she’s balancing.
Lopez isn’t just taking eight classes as a full-time student at Fairmont High School in Fairmont, Minn.
She’s also studying nursing.
Her dual efforts will soon end as the 18-year-old graduates in May from Minnesota West Community & Technical College, earning her associate of science degree in nursing. A few weeks later, in June, she’ll graduate from Fairmont High with her high school diploma.
She’ll be the first high school student to graduate with a nursing degree from Minnesota West — and possibly Minnesota.
“These last few weeks have been a lot, but I’m excited to keep moving forward,” Lopez said, noting that the next step is to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination to officially become a registered nurse. “I really love what I do. I have passion to live my life in service to others, to advocate and be a leader for others through health care.”
For Lopez, this is only the next step in a long-term plan of becoming a sub-specialist in pediatric surgical gynecology.
“I have my next 10 years planned out,” she said with a laugh. This summer, she’ll take classes at Southwest Minnesota State University and plans to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in nursing next spring.
Nancy Sprengeler is the director of Educational Talent Search at Minnesota State University Mankato and has worked with Lopez since she was in middle school. Even then, she knew Lopez had great ambition.
“I was a bit surprised when I looked into her notes and found that as a seventh-grader she had already identified her long-term goal of OB-GYN, and as an eighth-grader had narrowed it to an obstetric pediatric surgical gynecologist, which remains her goal today,” Sprengeler said.
“It’s incredible to see someone with such determination and success remain humble and appreciative, but she has.”
Growing up in Truman, Minn. — a town with a population of just over 1,000 — her aspiration to be in the health field began on the neighborhood playground. One day, a group of panicking children ran over to tell her parents that a child had fallen off the play set. Lopez, only 4 years old at the time, ran up to her room to collect her stethoscope, tool bag and white coat before heading over to the scene. When Lopez arrived, she got right to work.
“I cleaned her wound with an alcohol wipe, put on some Neosporin, placed a bandage and deemed her good as new,” Lopez said, adding that her act “seemed [like] instinct.”
Years later, a happy accident led Lopez to officially pursue her dream — at an accelerated pace. In the summer of 2016, her mother came across a Facebook post advertising postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO), a program allowing students to earn college credit while still in high school.
In the fall of Lopez’s sophomore year, she started taking college courses and high school classes concurrently. This was an uncharted path for her and her advisers, she said.
“My advisers said they could guide me on this, but they’d never had any high school student do [nursing classes that young] before,” Lopez said. “They encouraged and supported me.”
Although Lopez has enjoyed her unique journey, she said she has struggled to keep up with her academic studies and deal with unsupportive peers.
“For the longest time, people didn’t really believe that I could do it,” Lopez said. “Once I graduated last year from the practical nursing program, though, things started to change.”
Looking ahead, which Lopez often does, she plans to attend Georgetown University and enroll in its family nurse practitioner program. After that, she hopes to attend medical school at the University of Minnesota and become a doctor by the time she is 25.
Her equally ambitious siblings also have big dreams of careers in the medical field. Her sister Jazzleene, 9, wants to become a dentist; GeminnieRose, 7, wants to become a pediatric surgeon; and Jojo, 5, wants to become a pediatrician. Together, they hope to open a family-owned hospital in southeastern Minnesota that provides care with a rural focus.
“Oftentimes, parents have difficulty making a dentist appointment across town and then coming back for a clinic visit and then going to the hospital. We’d like to have a three-in-one,” Lopez said. “It’s cool to be able to share my dreams and aspirations with them.”
Lopez said her family, as well as her passion for helping others, keep her motivated to pursue her dreams, despite her challenges as a first-generation student from a low-income minority family.
“Becoming a nurse is the hardest thing I’ve accomplished in life,” Lopez said. “I entered nursing school with a thirst for knowledge and fell in love with being a nurse. I feel honored to have the ability to help someone during the hardest physical and psychological times of their lives.
“My goals have never wavered from being a physician but, instead, expanded into having an appreciation for a profession which has given so much to me.”
Those who have watched Lopez fully expect to see continued success in her future.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Melinda Kassandra Lopez in the ‘30 under 30’ people to watch,” Sprengeler said. “We’ll be seeing more about this outstanding young lady.”
Alex Smith is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.