Nicolette Gonzales, A UNM BA/MD student
Nicolette Gonzales, A UNM BA/MD student, seeks dual role as physician and advocate.
Credit: Furhana Afrid

When Nicolette Gonzales was born to deaf parents in Pecos, N.M., American Sign Language became her first means of communication.

“I picked it up before I even started babbling,” says Gonzales, who served as her parents’ liaison between the hearing and non-hearing world. “I know the struggle for communication.”

Gonzales, 21, is a junior in UNM's Combined BA/MD Degree Program. The partnership between the UNM College of Arts and Sciences and the UNM School of Medicine seeks to alleviate the state’s chronic physician shortage. More than 300 New Mexico students from diverse backgrounds have enrolled in the program since 2006.

Gonzales says neither she nor her parents feel they are different from other parents. “It was just a different method of communication,” she says of using sign language. But her parents experienced a stigma that put them at a disadvantage. That has fueled her determination to become both a physician and an advocate for people with disabilities.

Her father, Nickolaus, is college educated and studied computer science. He qualified for several career opportunities, but due to his hearing disability he could only get odd jobs, she says. He also faced difficulties navigating the health care system.

“He had a deep mistrust for it,” Gonzales says. During doctor visits providers would write a prescription and send him on his way, she says. They rarely engaged him in a conversation to better understand his circumstances and determine the best health care.

“That’s the struggle the deaf community faces,” Gonzales says. “There is a big communication gap between physicians and patients.”

Gonzales saw a future role in health care and imagined a career in medicine, but her parents could not afford college education. “I grew up on food stamps,” she says. “I got a lot of hand-me-downs.”

But she credits her family for instilling in her solid values of hard work. “They taught me nothing’s handed to you,” she says. At Pecos High School she applied and won a scholarship to the Gates-Millennium Scholars Program.

“It changed my life,” she says. “There’s no dream that’s too big. You don’t have to settle for what you think life has handed you.”

At UNM, she is pursuing a double major in health medicine and human values and political science. With only a year left in her undergraduate program, she is eager to join the School of Medicine.

More than 40 of the students enrolled in the Combined BA/MD Degree Program have already graduated from medical school. Five have gone on to complete their residencies and return to New Mexico to practice medicine.

Gonzales’ aspirations extend beyond providing health care. She wants to also take on the role of an activist and shape health care policy for disadvantaged and disabled communities. “Medicine is more than just the delivery of health care,” she says.

“My father works hard every day to get his voice heard,” Gonzales adds. “I see myself as very blessed to be where I am.”