Cecelia Villa

Villa is now in her second year in the University of Washington School of Medicine’s multistate WWAMI program in Spokane.

Are you still a first-generation college student if your mother gets her degree alongside you? That’s what happened to Cecelia Villa. The first in her family to go to medical school, Villa is now in her second year in the University of Washington School of Medicine’s multistate WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) program in Spokane.

As an undergraduate student, Villa studied chemistry. At the same time — with nine children, including Villa, and a couple of them still living at home — her mother earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, taking a job at the local blood bank after graduation. All of Villa’s siblings would go on to earn college degrees, too.

“My parents wanted us to do something more, to get an education in order to have a better future,” says Villa, who grew up in Spokane after moving from Southern California.

Thanks to strong role models in her family, Villa learned not only the value of education, but how to be an active participant in a supportive community.

A strong circulatory system

“Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money,” Villa says, recalling times when they relied on a community giving tree for Christmas presents or asked for help to pay bills.

Even so, her family made it a priority to give back. “My mother taught us to reciprocate,” says Villa. “From a young age, my mom always had us volunteering. It’s natural for me; we’re supposed to be in the community helping each other.”

Through these lessons and the example of an older sister who got a degree in medical technology, Villa found her calling: a career in medicine. Early on, during her first biology class, she fell in love with the heart. “I think it’s a beautiful organ,” she says.

After graduating from college, Villa pursued her passion, working as an HLA (human leukocyte antigen) tech for Spokane’s solid organ transplant programs. From the start, she was all-in, following patients and observing surgeries in her time off. In return, she found a strong healthcare community ready to support her.

“The transplant teams here in Spokane are awesome,” she says. “I told them I wanted to go into medicine, and they showed me around, inviting me to transplant surgery, giving me a better feel for the operating room and the clinics.”

Villa found a similar community of support in the School of Medicine’s WWAMI program, designed to help address community care gaps.

“I’ve lived in Spokane for 16 years,” she says. “The program works to be very inclusive, from connecting us to Native American practitioners to working in a homeless shelter clinic. It lets us experience the different communities here.”

"From a young age, my mom always had us volunteering. It's natural for me; we're supposed to be in the community helping each other."

Scholarships: the lifeblood of education

"Once I'm out there practicing in the world, I'll go where I'm needed."

Partly because of those inclusion efforts, the WWAMI program attracts diverse applicants — and the generosity of scholarship donors plays a critical role in helping these students achieve their dreams.

“I’ve relied very heavily on scholarships my whole education. If I didn’t, I couldn’t go to school,” Villa says. “It isn’t feasible for me to take out all that money.”

Villa understands firsthand the power of scholarships to improve medicine as a whole by eliminating stereotypes about who can practice medicine. “You need diversity. If someone has diabetes living on food stamps, you need a physician who knows what that means. It brings equity by helping people like me realize we have the potential and can do things that we couldn’t normally afford,” she says.

This diversity of students also helps to create a rich and dynamic medical-school cohort. “As a class of 60 students, we’re close,” says Villa, describing how the group bonded before the global pandemic curtailed in-person gatherings.

During these disrupted times, Villa struggles with the loss of that community, so central to how she shows up in the world. “It’s stressful being in medical school,” she says. “And then you aren’t allowed to see each other.” The pandemic has also had a deeply personal impact; she’s trying to come to terms with losing an uncle to COVID-19 and being unable to gather with her family to mourn their loss.

As she prepares to take her board exams, Villa keeps to a strict and solitary study schedule. After passing the exams, she’ll begin WWAMI’s “safari” experience, broadening her skills in communities with rotations in places such as Alaska, Montana and Seattle.

Looking toward the future, Villa says, “Once I’m out there practicing in the world, I’ll go where I’m needed.” When she gets there, she’ll be ready to apply the many lessons learned in school and life as she cares for hearts and circulatory systems both individually and across our community.

If you’d like to help students like Cecelia achieve their dreams of caring for their communities through a career in medicine, make a gift to support scholarships at UW Medicine.

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