A little over a decade ago, Mario Lopez-Rodriguez spent a day shadowing a nurse practitioner at a Crockett County clinic.
Mario was in high school and unsure about his career path, but he pursued the clinic opportunity on the advice of his guidance counselor.
“I was biased in my thinking about nursing,” Mario now admits. “I had always assumed, ‘Oh, nurses just take orders from the doctor, hand them charts, distribute medication to patients,’ etc.”
“I enjoyed witnessing the interaction with patients,” he says. “Watching this nurse make patient assessments and seeing how she made them feel at ease opened my eyes to what nursing truly is.”
During a break in the day, the nurse asked Mario, “Are you sure this is what you’re interested in?” Though she wasn’t questioning his abilities, her inquiry was the nudge Mario needed to begin his health care career in earnest.
Developing a desire to help others
Born in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in 1993, Mario emigrated to Tennessee with his family in 2000. His parents sought better employment for themselves and better educational opportunities for their three children.
“My hometown of Ejido Lucio Blanco is a small rural area with close family ties,” Mario says. “Employment relies on fieldwork, animal herding, and work outside of town. My parents uprooted everything they had in Mexico and moved us to the U.S.”
“My parents always reminded me and my siblings that ‘la escuela es tu trabajo,’ meaning our job was to be in school and learn. So early on I was laser-focused on excelling in my education.”
The family resettled in rural Crockett County. Though extended family was already there, Mario experienced culture shock. Unlike his childhood village, every house had electricity and running water, and most roads were paved. There was also a language barrier, and as a second grader Mario immediately began taking English-as-second-language classes.
Mario, a middle child, was often tasked with caring for his younger sister while his parents worked. He also cared for even younger cousins, a role he settled into with surprising ease and joy.
In high school, Mario was on track to become the first person on both sides of his family to go to college. His father had passed away, and his mother was working long hours to continue supporting her family. Mario spent a lot of time in the office of his guidance counselor. She got him to open up about his goals and his interests.
“I spoke about my desire to help and serve others, and that I wanted a career where I could interact with others and make a difference in their lives,” Mario says. “I also enjoyed science classes from elementary to high school, so I wanted something with a science background.”
Unexpected educational support
Mario enrolled at the University of Memphis — Lambuth Campus in Jackson, Tenn., as a nursing major. The supportive environment and relationships he made during this time influenced his passion for health care.
Like many college students, Mario was wrestling with the financial strain of higher education. But then he heard about the BlueCross Power of We Diversity Scholarship.
Since 2013, the BlueCross Foundation has awarded $10,000 scholarships to Tennessee college students. Their goal is to help increase representation in the state’s health care workforce and address health disparities minority groups face.
“I was hesitant to apply because it was early on in my nursing classes, and the amount of academic and clinical work was overwhelming,” Mario recalls. “But I looked at my past experiences and the difficult road ahead with being able to afford college, knowing my family’s finances — despite their sacrifices — couldn’t fully provide for it.”
“I approached my application as, ‘Why not take the chance of putting in the work? If it works out, great. If not, it’s still a learning opportunity where I get to share my story and why I chose health care, and maybe inspire someone else along the way.’”
“Putting in the work” paid off, and Mario became a Power of We scholar in 2014.
“The greatest thing that came from the scholarship was the recognition of my passions and validation that what I was pursuing mattered so much to others that they would trust me with such a large amount of money to keep going,” he says. “Becoming a recipient is one of my proudest accomplishments.”
That list of accomplishments has grown. After graduation from the University of Memphis, Mario went to work as a pediatric registered nurse at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis. He became active in community health, volunteering at clinics and working alongside mentors to establish Mi Vida Hispana (“My Hispanic Life”), an organization devoted to providing support in health, education and civic involvement.
In 2019, Mario left the children’s hospital to pursue an opportunity in global health as a United States Peace Corps Health Volunteer in Tanzania.
“My service as a Peace Corps volunteer helped define my passion for global health,” he says. “It allowed me the opportunity to learn, live and work with a community that I wouldn’t have interacted with otherwise. It also taught me the importance of cultural humility and putting effort into learning about the communities I seek to serve.”
An expansive view of community care
Mario carries those lessons in cultural humility today. They’ve informed his long-term goal of serving individuals while also influencing systemic change to improve the health and well-being of communities.
After returning from Tanzania in 2020 and obtaining a nursing position at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Mario enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta. He’s currently a full-time graduate student pursuing a Master of Public Health with a Community Health Development concentration.
“The next step is graduation and employment at the intersection of nursing and public health, whether in the local or international context,” Mario says.
“Growing up, I remember speakers at our school discussing different topics or sharing their stories, but very few ever looked like me, spoke my first language or shared a similar culture,” he says. “It’s so valuable and important for each of us to share our stories. We learn about the uniqueness of each individual and our similarities as they relate to experiences, goals and passions. The act of sharing our stories helps unite us in our common humanity and minimizes the effects of our prejudices and biases.”