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Lopez to become first high school student to graduate from Minnesota West nursing program

Melinda Kassandra Lopez will be the first high school student to graduate from the Minnesota West Community and Technical College nursing program. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Melinda Kassandra Lopez can’t remember a time when she hasn’t wanted to be a doctor.

With a personality that drives her to constantly push herself, Lopez is on an accelerated track to achieving her dream of providing quality health care in rural southern Minnesota. In May, the 18-year-old from Truman will be the first high school student to graduate from Minnesota West Community and Technical College’s nursing program, earning her registered nurse status.

“Since I was young, I wanted to be a physician,” Lopez said. “I had friends who wanted to be a fairy or a princess. I was a doctor fairy princess, but I was always a doctor first. That’s always been the focus of my life.”

As the second-term Minnesota West Student Senate president, Lopez will speak at the college’s commencement ceremony May 17. She’ll also speak at the nursing program’s pinning ceremony earlier that day. She will graduate from Fairmont High School on June 2.

Lopez is ecstatic for all that she has accomplished, and she beams when describing that she’ll likely become a doctor at an early age.

“I’ll become a doctor at 24 or 25,” said Lopez, who has amassed more than 100 college credits before earning her high school diploma.

The first generation college student remembers caring for her first “patient” at just 4 years old. A group of neighbor kids showed up at her door, pleading for help after a young girl fell off a slide and scraped her knee.

“I grabbed my doctor kit — I’m in my lab coat — and I ran to the playground,” Lopez recalled of the pivotal moment in her life, which her parents Jose and Melinda also captured on video. “I cleaned (her knee) and put some neosporin and a (bandage) on.”

That early memory is the first in a string of real-life experiences that helped shape the young woman’s aspiration to become an obstetric pediatric surgical gynecologist.

Lopez took her first monumental step toward becoming a doctor when she enrolled in Post-Secondary Enrollment Options courses as a sophomore at Fairmont High School. At the conclusion of her sophomore year, she was accepted into the Minnesota West nursing program.

“That was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said about her entrance to the program, which had been unprecedented at Minnesota West. She’s technically already a Minnesota West graduate, as she completed the college’s practical nursing program last year at age 17.

After her second graduation in May, she’ll continue classes in the summer to prepare for the fall semester at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. At SMSU, she plans to take advantage of an RN to BSN pathway Minnesota West and SMSU have created to allow nursing students to earn their bachelor’s degree in one year.

While she once planned on attending an Ivy League school, she has since decided she’d like to attend medical school in the same state she hopes to one day practice medicine. She’ll apply to the University of Minnesota with the hope to one day start a unique health care facility with her three younger siblings, who currently have goals to practice dentistry, pediatrics and pediatric surgery.

“It’s spectacular that I get to share my dreams and goals with them,” she said.

In addition to her coursework, Lopez has also served as Minnesota West’s honorary fraternity Phi Theta Kappa chapter president. As part of that, she was nominated to represent Minnesota West on an All-State academic team, which makes her a nominee for the All-USA Academic Team.

As Student Senate president, Lopez also serves as a governing council representative student at large for LEAD MN, an organization that allows students to develop leadership skills and enact change. She also serves on the steering and scholarship committees with hopes of one day creating a scholarship foundation to benefit young learners.

“I would also like to go back into bringing health care into the forefront of American policies,” she added of her future desire to be engaged in politics.

Lopez was also recently selected to the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota Young Women’s Innovator Cohort and the National Society of High School Scholars.

In the limited free time she has, Lopez plays softball year-round, coaches youth softball and soccer teams and volunteers in the community.

As someone who identified being a Latina first-generation college student from a low-income household, Lopez said she wants her experience to not only be an example to her siblings, but to the community of other young women and men.

“I firmly believe in the quote, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’” she said. “To acknowledge I’ll be graduating here in just a couple months, it makes me very happy to know that I get to keep doing what I love doing — and I get to show other students that they have that ability, too.”

She hopes to continue to be active at Minnesota West and give back to the Worthington community she said she very much feels a part of, as she spent significant time on campus over the past two years.

Minnesota West Student Advisor Beth Bents said Lopez accomplished much during her time at Minnesota West.

“We will miss seeing her on campus, but it will be fun to see where her drive and determination take her from here and what she will continue to accomplish in her life,” Bents said.

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