Make a list of career obstacles. There’s a good chance Lourdes Cueva, M.S.N., R.N., has faced many of them.

She began working in high school to support her immigrant family as she tried to find a path into health care. Her father was laid off when she was a high school senior, so she added more work hours as she studied. Then there was the moment as a Sacramento City College student when she learned she did not have the requirements to enter the nursing program.

“I was working full time,” Cueva said. “I come from a very low-income family. My father had a hard time getting a job. I said to myself, ‘OK, next route. Keep going forward. Just don’t give up. Don’t give up.’ ”

This spring, Cueva, Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing 2019 graduate, began working full-time at the UC Davis Medical Center, starting with rotations in three intensive care units as part of her months’ long orientation.

She is a monument to resilience and her story demonstrates the value of pathway programs. She offers hope for others who face obstacles, and applies her understanding of overcoming challenges to delivering compassionate care at the bedside.

“To be a good nurse, you have to be able to connect with people,” said Cueva, 26. “I’ve seen so many people here who do that so naturally. When you’re a nurse, you’re at your patient’s bedside. You get to make a difference when people are at their most vulnerable.”

A heart for nursing

If Cueva’s road was filled with obstacles, her compass was locked by high school. She discovered the possibility of a health care career when she was at Fern Bacon Middle School and heard a presentation from teachers at Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School, a small public Sacramento school that is a pathway program toward medical professions.

“I knew right away,” Cueva said. “This is the school I want to go to. This is what I want to do.”

Her teachers there saw the kind of person who belongs in health care.

“She always had the beautiful blend of compassion and intelligence,” said Deborah Meltvedt, a medical science teacher. “She faced a lot of hardships but managed to balance work and school, and she still found time to do volunteer work to give back to her community.”

Meanwhile, Cueva’s parents, Juan and Rosa, struggled to find something more than seasonal work. The high school found her a paid summer internship at La Familia Counseling Center in Sacramento, and when that ended, Cueva began working regular jobs at age 16. By the time she entered the Allied Health program at Sacramento City College, she was working full time. That was also where she decided nursing would be her path in health care.

“I’ve always wanted to help people, and when I meet someone, I’m always the one who just starts talking,” she said. “Nursing is about caring and connecting. It just seemed so right for me.”

But she didn’t have the requirements at Sacramento City College, so her steps forward took her to a degree in health science at Sacramento State University. While she was there, she still worked full time.

“I got financial aid for some of registration and school, but I worked to help my family pay bills,” Cueva said.

Entering Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing

She finally stopped working when she entered the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing in July 2018. The timing wasn’t perfect, however. Cueva and her partner had a seven-week-old daughter named Valeria.

“Oh man, it was a big transition to the School of Nursing. And Valeria was a big transition, too,” Cueva said. “Everyone there is so smart. It was really hard. The thing was, because it was hard, I tried even harder. I did very well academically because I tried so hard. I guess I had that imposter syndrome where you say, ‘Oh, I don’t belong here.’ ”

All her work made Cueva very resolute about time management.

“I said no to everything but school and baby,” she said. “That’s what got me through.”

She graduated with honors and as a member of the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing. She is also in the UC Davis nurse residency program, and has more classes ahead of her.

Her next milestone

For Juan and Rosa Cueva, the achievements of their daughter did seem a possibility. But they watched her carve paths forward, refuse to give up, and become someone wholly unexpected.

“My parents wanted something more for me than they had. They were always at a disadvantage and couldn’t get jobs because they were immigrants,” she said. “Even though I was born here and spoke English, I always felt one step behind because we were low-income. I had to try a little bit harder. It makes me happy that they’re proud of me and that they love who I’ve become and the path I’ve chosen.”

Cueva looks toward the future with confidence and optimism as her path unfolds.

“The School of Nursing has a doctorate program I want to look at, but I want to stay bedside, too. And I want to be a role model for my daughter so she doesn’t have to take those extra steps,” Cueva said. “There are so many more things I want to do.”