Jessica Benally and Alec Montoya in their graduation regalia
By El Webb

Stories from Inspiring Health Sciences Graduates

Commencement season is a bittersweet time for The University of New Mexico Health Sciences community.

It's a time for celebration, reflection and embracing the past and the future.

For a health sciences campus continuing the recovery efforts following the pandemic, it's imperative to encourage the growth of the health care workforce in order to help build a more resilient future.

Cultivating a diverse workforce of health care professionals who reflect the communities in which they serve is also crucial, as having a diverse health care staff provides access to different perspectives.

The following are some of the spring 2023 graduation events happening across the Health Sciences Center:

Jessica Benally

Growing up, Jessica Benally never saw a doctor that looked like her. So, she made it her mission to change that.

"There's a huge need for Native physicians," said Benally, who is Diné/Navajo. "I saw the disparities that affect my people, so I decided to make the change to be a provider they could trust and confide in."


Jessica Benally
I saw the disparities that affect my people, so I decided to make the change to be a provider they could trust and confide in.
β€” Jessica Benally, MD Student

Benally is graduating with her doctorate in medicine from the School of Medicine this spring. Once she begins her residency at UNM Hospital this summer, she will pursue obstetrics and gynecology (OBGYN).

"I'm excited, because the residency program that I'm starting this summer focuses on wellness and maintaining your own identity during the process," she said.

Once she finishes her residency, Benally hopes to return home to become an OBGYN. She said she wants to help provide health services that are lacking in Gallup.

"I hope to fill in the gap that needs to be filled back in my hometown," she said.

Benally's journey to the graduation stage was not exactly linear.

After graduating from Gallup High School in 2008, she enrolled at UNM but dropped out shortly after.

College was a different experience than she expected, she said, and a lack of support and resources set her back.

After giving birth to her daughter a couple years later, Benally said her family encouraged her to go back to school. She said she wanted to be a role model for her daughter.

"I decided I wanted to be a doctor," she said. "And I want to make sure my daughter has the tools for success in her own life."

During her time at the School of Medicine, Benally relied on her family for support.

"There were a lot of times when I didn't want to continue, because it was a difficult program," she said. "Relying on my support system was really crucial in my success."

Benally also sought support and resources from different Native American organizations on and off campus, including the Center for Native American Health, American Indian Student Services, the Association of Native American Medical Students.

"Throughout my educational journey, I wanted to be a mentor and find mentors that would further help me get to my goal of becoming a doctor," she said. "Those relationships that I had fostered a professional identity in me and helped me get to my goal."

Offering some words of wisdom for the incoming cohort of medicine students, Benally said to never be afraid to ask for help.

"I feel like that was a lesson I learned the hard way. Being a first-generation college student, I was used to trying to troubleshoot things on my own," she said. "It wasn't until I started asking for help that I really felt like I was able to perform to my full potential."

Alec Montoya

Another inspiring student who is graduating this semester is Alec Montoya, who will be graduating with his bachelor's in nursing from the College of Nursing.

During his final semester, he worked as a nurse intern in the pediatric emergency department at UNM Hospital.

"Working in the pediatric ER is very fast paced, but there's a great support system," he said. "Everybody is there to help you learn. They're there for you, but they also let you be independent."

A pediatric ER sees children at their most vulnerable moments, and it's impossible to predict what each day will bring, Montoya said.

"It's a great place to have a good influence on a lot of kids and save lives," he said. "You might see some sad stuff but it's very rewarding."

Alec Montoya
It's a great place to have a good influence on a lot of kids and save lives. You might see some sad stuff but it's very rewarding.
β€” Alec Montoya, BSN Student

Being a calming presence for the young patients is crucial when it comes to helping them feel comfortable in a hospital environment, he said.

"Kids are different because they're a lot more innocent," he said. "It's great to help them understand things and not be scared."

Montoya said the College of Nursing prepared him for entering the health care workforce.

"The teachers are super supportive," he said. "They really want you to succeed and they're really passionate about what they do. I feel like that really helps you as a student."

Going into nursing was not something Montoya wanted to initially pursue- in fact, he wanted to become a firefighter-paramedic, but switched gears after learning that Albuquerque Fire and Rescue's enrollment period had closed.

"I didn't want to not do anything for a whole year," he said with a laugh. "I knew there was a lot of cool stuff you can do in the nursing field, so I looked it up and applied."

Little did he know nursing school would become much more than a back-up plan: it would become his calling.

"I'm excited and I hope to have a career in pediatrics - I'd really like that to be my specialty," he said. "I don't know exactly what the future holds, but I just strive to be positive and to always learn from my environment. There's always something new to learn."

Categories: College of Nursing, Community Engagement, Education, School of Medicine