Fairmont High School student earns nursing degree

Melinda Kassandra Lopez

Eighteen-year-old Melinda Kassandra Lopez will soon be the first in the state to graduate as a registered nurse while still in high school.

The Fairmont high school student will obtain her associate’s degree in nursing from Minnesota West Community and Technical College in May. In June, she will graduate from Fairmont High School.

Lopez, daughter of Jose and Melinda Lopez, has been on an accelerated track for several years. She began taking PSEO classes through Minnesota West during her sophomore year. Last May, she graduated from Minnesota West with honors as a Licensed Practical Nurse during her junior year in high school.

On May 17, Lopez will speak at the pinning program in front of roughly 50 classmates in her program, but later in the day she will speak in front of about 500 students and their families during Minnesota West’s commencement, as she serves as the school’s student senate president.

After her two graduation ceremonies, Lopez will not take the summer off, as she plans to start classes again to continue her education and work toward her goal of becoming a doctor.

“Minnesota West has given me an opportunity I can’t refuse,” she said.

She will start taking classes at the end of May to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Southwest Minnesota State University. The four-year university has an RN to BSN pathway specifically catering to Minnesota West RN students.

Lopez had planned to go to a four-year Ivy League or out-of-state school, but she realizes that what is in front of her is a good opportunity.

“This program would allow me to get my Bachelor of Science in nursing in just one year,” she said. “I’ll have a bachelor’s degree at 19 years old. At the end of the day, my goal is to become a doctor. And I know it will happen. But I have to prioritize. If I can get to the point to help as many people as possible sooner, that’s what I want. It’s not school-specific. This pathway will provide me the opportunity to get there sooner.”

After obtaining her BSN, she plans to transfer to the University of Minnesota for one year in order to finish her medical pre-requisites.

“My top medical school is actually the University of Minnesota,” Lopez said. “They have one of the best medical schools in the nation. I would like to go there to continue my education and it would be amazing to work at the Children’s Hospital.”

Her plan is to become an obstetric pediatric surgical gynecologist, a goal she has had since her younger sister was born. Her desire to help women is one that she is passionate about. In fact, Lopez recently sent in an application and was selected to be a part of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota Young Women’s Innovator Cohort. Lopez received a grant and will give motivational speeches locally and at colleges and universities in the state.

“I think women are extraordinary and once she feels her empowerment, she’ll continue to empower others,” Lopez said. “As I become a doctor and continue on my educational journey, I plan to be a firm women’s advocate.”

While Lopez will theoretically become a doctor at age 24, or years sooner than most, it’s not because she took the easy way. She has been taking classes every summer for the past few years. In fact, she has taken more than 100 college credits since she was a sophomore. She puts in a lot of time studying and commuting.

“Last year, I was at the point where I was driving to Worthington four times a week,” Lopez said of the hour and a half commute from her home in Truman. “Some days I would have to be at the nursing home at 5 a.m.”

Over the past few years, Lopez has worked locally at Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center, Heartland Senior Living in Truman, the Mayo medical center in Fairmont, Crossroads in Worthington, and the clinic and hospital in Worthington.

“I love being a nurse,” she said. “I was 16 and able to be in a hospital working with people. Fairmont High School and Minnesota West have provided me such a special pathway with the support and encouragement and assurance.”

In addition to being a full-time student, Lopez is co-chair president of the Martin County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition. She also holds several positions in Lead MN, a group that aims to empower two-year college students to become strong leaders, engaged community members and successful professionals. This summer, she will be on a traveling softball team.

Lopez is president of Minnesota West’s honor society, Phi Theta Kappa, and was recently chosen from the pool of students at Minnesota West and nominated for the all-state academic team, representing Minnesota as an academic scholar.

“It’s a huge honor,” Lopez said.

Another thing she takes pride in is knowing that her younger siblings look up to her. Jazzleene, 9, Geminnie Rose, 7, and JoJo, 4 all aspire to work in the medical field like their big sister.

“I love being able to share my dreams and goals with them,” Lopez said. “We encourage them to be what they want to be but they all lean toward medicine.”

The family hopes to one day have a private, family-owned hospital that is patient-centered.

“Being a nurse has taught me to care for people,” Lopez said. “Bringing that knowledge into being a doctor is going to be spectacular. I have full conviction that becoming a doctor is what I’m meant to spend the rest of my life doing.”

She is well on her way to achieving her goals and while it hasn’t been easy, it all has been worth it to her.

“When I was little, I would tell people I wanted to be a doctor and they would say, ‘Oh, OK. Good for you,’ and now I’m at a point where people are saying, ‘She’s not only going to do it, but she’s done it,’ and that’s the best thing,” Lopez said.

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