Front-Line Stories

From Nurse Practitioner to Physician-in-Training: One Nontraditional Student Is Making Her Lifelong Dream a Reality

From Nurse Practitioner to Physician-in-Training: One Nontraditional Student Is Making Her Lifelong Dream a Reality

Ever since starting out as a certified nursing assistant, she’s been hungry for knowledge and eager to dedicate herself to helping others. “Chemotherapy, neuro-ICU, labor and delivery … I think I’ve done everything except dialysis,” says Lalita, 43, a nurse practitioner hospitalist turned first-semester student at AUC School of Medicine.

Until a few weeks ago, the Texas native was working nights at a Level I trauma center in Buffalo, NY. Today, she is pursuing her Doctor of Medicine degree as a recipient of the First Generation MD Award—an AUC scholarship of up to $50,000 awarded to students who are striving to be first-generation physicians within their immediate families.

From LPN to MSN as a Single Working Mom

Lalita grew up in Texas with aspirations of becoming a surgeon and began studying biology at Fisk University in Nashville. But it wasn’t long before, as she puts it, “life happened” and her journey took a different path.

During her junior year, Lalita’s mother suffered a debilitating heart attack, requiring her to go on disability and eventually receive a heart transplant. Not long after, her grandmother passed away. Then, two days before graduation, Lalita found out she was pregnant.

Although her aspirations to become a physician hadn’t changed, Lalita decided to move back to Texas and complete the prerequisites for nursing school instead, so she could be closer to family while raising her daughter and starting a career in healthcare. By the time her daughter was seven months old, Lalita had already begun a Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) program.

Over the next several years, Lalita continued her education while working full-time in nursing—earning her BSN between shifts at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, then her MSN while serving as a community and school nurse. Meanwhile, family remained top of mind as her parents’ health deteriorated and her daughter reached school age. “I was a single mom taking care of my parents, working and going to school,” Lalita remembers. “It’s been a very busy life.”

Most recently, Lalita had been studying toward her doctorate in nursing practice. But on the heels of finishing her DNP, she realized she couldn’t quite let go of that dream to become a physician. That’s when she decided to apply to AUC.

Lalita Alexander at work

Building Connections Through Medicine

After attending a virtual information session and hearing from current AUC students, Lalita had made her decision. She emphasized AUC’s 40+ year legacy and reputation—attendings at her hospital had recommended she consider it—and community values as factors in her choice to attend.

“Community involvement is important to me, and AUC celebrates everyone’s culture, beliefs, and values,” Lalita says. “I listened to a webinar led by the BMSA [Black Medical Student Association], and it wasn’t just African-American students—there were students from different races and cultures coming together as one. That’s what healthcare is about. That’s the world to me, that’s the melting pot. We’re not just going to treat one group of people, or one race, or one ethnicity.”

Despite her busy schedule, Lalita has always made it a priority to give back, from mentoring local young women to facilitating donations for children in foster care. One of the projects she’s most passionate about has been changing healthcare beliefs around breast cancer and prevention, and setting up free and reduced-cost mammograms in underserved communities.

“My grandmother is a breast cancer survivor. It runs in my family, so it’s near and dear to my heart,” says Lalita. “There’s also a cultural stigma in many women of color about not touching your breasts, which is so important in detecting cancer. I want to change that culture. Even though we have some of the best technological systems out there to detect breast cancer, if you don’t incorporate someone’s beliefs into your care, you’re not going to reach them.”

The Path to MD

Nearly a month into her first semester, Lalita is balancing her extensive healthcare experience with learning from another perspective.

“I’ve been a nurse practitioner for 11 years, I’ve been in nursing for over 20. There are a lot of things I do know, and a lot that I have to put by the wayside,” she says. “Some things have become repetition to me, where I need to really think about what I’m doing and go back to it step-by-step.”

Her advice for other nontraditional students? Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know.

“I’m not ashamed to say if I don’t know something or it’s not sticking. I go to peer tutoring, group tutoring, all kinds of tutoring. It’s there, so why not use your resources?” she says. “It’s OK to not know something. The scarier thing is someone who sits back and says ‘I know it,’ and then they don’t, and they don’t get help. If that’s what you do in the field, you’re going to end up hurting somebody. Medicine’s always changing, you have to be able to keep learning and asking questions.

And, she says, if you know you want to be a doctor—don’t wait.

“If you have any inkling that you want to be a physician, then go be a physician,” she says. “Take your prerequisites and put in the time toward what you want to do. I had a 20-year delay, but I’m glad it’s led me to where I am now.”

Lalita is one of several career changers in AUC’s September 2024 class—and not the only one with a nursing background. Among her peers are a nurse case manager, a surgical ICU nurse, a pharmacy tech, an engineer, and a naturopathic physician. On Friday, October 2, they will join together virtually to take part in AUC’s White Coat Ceremony, a traditional milestone for first year medical students.