Ashley Gagnon says she wasn't emotionally ready for college when she graduated from Lake Havasu High School in 2009. Instead, she opted for the military to discover where her talents lay.
After serving a few years in the Wounded Warrior unit of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, not only had Gagnon gotten a reality check, she found her calling: being a doctor.
“My life was almost entirely molded during my time in the military,” said Gagnon, who will graduate from ASU at Lake Havasu on May 5. “That’s where I really figured out the kind of person I am and I accomplished things I didn’t know I was capable of.”
Gagnon’s goal was lofty, and it meant getting out of the service and going back to the classroom to get a biology degree. She said it was intimidating in the beginning, but returning home to Lake Havasu made it easier. So did the school’s beautiful setting, friendly staff and low teacher-to-student ratio.
The 27-year-old will be gearing up for more education and more military service in the coming months. Depending on where she is accepted, Gagnon will be headed to medical school for the next few years either at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland or the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland. Either way, she’s ready to get back in uniform and serve once again.
Her reason? “In the military, everybody puts forth their best effort. Those patients deserve to have the best physicians.”
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
Answer: My “aha” moment was during my deployment on the USS Iwo Jima. I was in charge of training all of the new corpsmen on board, and I was also in charge of the clinic. During an emergency on the ship, everything moved in slow motion. When everyone else in the room realized how bad it was, I had a moment where I looked up to breathe and I noticed that every single person involved in responding was looking at me for an answer. They expected the solution and the plan to come from me. I flourished in that type of environment, and I continued to be the one to go to for answers. I functioned independently, and I saw patients, wrote notes, ordered testing, interpreted the results, and ordered treatment completely on my own. I sat down and realized that I wanted to be a doctor. Not only a physician, but a Navy physician. I wanted to go to school and come back to the military and show other young corpsmen what they are capable of doing in their careers.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?
A: Despite making the choice to get out and become a doctor, I found myself getting very frustrated at the beginning years of my undergrad. I felt like the curriculum was useless and irritating. I felt like I was wasting my time and that it didn’t apply to the bigger picture of me becoming a doctor. Unfortunately, I didn’t begin to “connect the dots” until the last semester of my junior year. I was sitting in a class and we were being taught about a particular concept in genetics and it was one of those “we briefly touched on it in your freshman biology class, but … ” and it was elaborated on more. That bigger picture of the context reminded me of a particular disease I had seen while in the Navy and I mentioned if the two had anything to do with one another. When everything came full circle, I instantly became so much more appreciative of everything I had learned throughout my time at ASU. I was almost mad at myself for not paying more attention or applying myself more in the very beginning.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: I had been away from home for over six years. I was ready to be home, and I was sick and tired of the East Coast. I always admired ASU while I was going to high school, and a lot of my friends from high school went to ASU and loved it. I was sold on making the move when I found out that ASU at Lake Havasu offered all of the courses that I needed to get into medical school, almost like the stars had aligned for me.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: Have fun now while the responsibilities aren’t heavy. However, don’t let yourself get too distracted. If you aren’t ready for college yet, there’s no shame in that. Attending a university and dictating your entire future at the age of 18 is unbelievably daunting. If you do decide to not pursue an education immediately, don’t make the mistake of never returning. Pursuing an education is important and will structure you for your future career.
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: My favorite spot is the patio outside of the student center. I love to sit outside and feel the warm sun shine on me. I try to lie to myself and say that I will go out there to study, but I always end up keeping my laptop closed and staring at the lake and mountains.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: I am attending medical school and returning to the United States Navy as an active-duty officer.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: While $40 million will not solve the mental health crisis in our world, much less our country, I would use that money to initiate a move towards improving mental health treatment and availability. One percent of the population joins the United States military. In that 1 percent, 22 veterans a day commit suicide. That’s a veteran every 65 minutes. This is 22 too many, and this is only looking at 1 percent of our country’s population; I can’t even begin to imagine the entire world. With the murders and mass shootings going on in our current day and age, now is the time more than ever that a light needs to be shined on mental health.
Top photo courtesy of Ashley Gagnon