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Dec. 14, 2010
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Nursing student from Chile takes different route to degree

Topeka, Kan. — A life-changing experience more than a decade ago and words of encouragement from a nurse inspired Carolina Leon to pursue a career in health care.Leon_Carolina

While living in El Salvador with her family, she served as a translator for doctors and nurses aboard ORBIS, a mobile teaching hospital on an airplane. Through ORBIS, eye-care professionals and aviators give the gift of sight to residents of developing countries. The nonprofit organization travels to third-world countries to help people lacking funds to afford eye surgeries.

During her volunteer efforts, Leon was studying engineering. One of the nurses on the plane noticed Leon’s ability to communicate well with the patients and told her, “Look how happy this is making you. You should be a nurse.” From that moment, Leon started to prepare for a career in nursing and became committed to translating for Spanish-speaking patients seeking health care.

Leon will be among 41 students who will graduate from Baker University’s School of Nursing on Sunday, Dec. 19, at the Collins Center on the Baldwin City campus. She was one of two nursing students selected by her classmates to speak at the pinning ceremony on Friday, Dec. 17, at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in Topeka.

“The teachers and staff really take the time to know who you are and are so caring,” said Leon, who will begin working at the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Stormont-Vail HealthCare in Topeka after receiving her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. “It is a very safe and nurturing environment to learn in and I feel that I got an outstanding education. The classes are small enough that you know all your classmates and can make very good friends. I know I have walked away with lifelong friends.”

That friendship grew earlier this year when Leon’s classmates rallied behind her after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 27 devastated Chile, Leon’s native land, destroying the home of her parents, sister and nephew. The nursing students donated money to assist with relief efforts and organized a “Chili for Chile” fund-raiser at the school.

“So many people participated,” Leon said. “It was just awesome and overwhelming to see the kindness and goodness in people.”

Since tremors are common in Chile, Leon wasn’t too concerned after hearing initial reports of the earthquake. Her worries escalated when she saw media coverage of the event. After many failed attempts to contact her parents, Juan and Veronica, she finally reached them and learned they had escaped unharmed.

“As soon as I heard their voices I cried with relief,” Leon said. “I had tried to not watch the images on the news all day because it felt like a nightmare.”

Leon is grateful that her parents will be in Kansas this weekend to celebrate Baker’s pinning and commencement ceremonies.

“It is very special to have them come this year because the earthquake affected them quite a bit,” she said. “They lost a lot and this will be a great chance to give them a break. Having family that far away is difficult. It is a blessing to have them here to share this moment with me. Being able to celebrate with them means the world to me.”

In addition to her parents, she will celebrate with a family who sponsored her student visa to attend school in the United States.

“I am lucky enough to have several people make up my very nontraditional family,” she said. “When you move around as much as I do you learn that family is everywhere if you look hard enough.”

Leon first came to Kansas a decade ago after she had been teaching English in Paraguay. She graduated in 2004 with a biology degree from Kansas State, where she was part of an exchange program that allowed international students to pay in-state tuition at universities in Kansas. After graduating from Kansas State, she worked in Phoenix and Portland for Planned Parenthood.

“I had the opportunity to work side by side with some great nurses and nurse practitioners,” she said. “It solidified my plan to return to nursing school.”

Leon will savor the weekend, reflecting on her two years at Baker and looking forward to her career as a nurse.

“My road here was long and had many detours,” she said. “But I could not be more pleased where I ended up. Along the way, some felt I had made wrong turns, but they all led me here right now, and here is where I want to be.” 

Baker University is committed to assuring student learning, and developing confident, competent and responsible contributors to society.